So What If School Choice Hurts Public Schools?

Aug 31, 2011 by

By Joy Pullmann

As school choice ever-so-slowly reaches more communities, critics argue it hurts public schools. At first, one might find this complaint a bit odd. If McDonald’s makes a better burger, causing more people to eat their food, what grounds does Burger King have to complain, “Food choice hurts Burger King”? Most people would say, “Well, then, get your customers back by improving your product!”

State constitutions and the culture they institutionalize, however, blunt this sensible response by emphasizing another American theme: many direct the state to provide for “a general system of education,” or some such, recognizing that education provides intangible qualities to a community.

Though the U.S. Constitution says nothing about schooling, the subject is dealt with in the Northwest Ordinance, adopted almost immediately after and providing for the settling of the western U.S. territories. The document states, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Americans still largely believe that our democratic republic and personal happiness depend on our national character and individual knowledge, which enable us to govern ourselves. This is the part of our nation’s soul to which school choice critics speak when warning that vouchers or charter schools take resources from traditional public schools.

But their argument is false, largely because it rests on the premise that traditional public schools educate better than the options school choice makes available. The concern for public schools’ well-being rests on the premise that our goal isn’t to fund education but is instead to sustain the contemporary, highly bureaucratic public school system despite its proven inability to meet the needs of every student or even most students.

Schools and their administrators and staff do not own tax dollars. The public owns the tax dollars, and it has a right to decide the best way to fund and manage public services. Insofar as a school betrays the public good by educating students poorly while pretending to do the opposite, it does not deserve tax monies, no matter what wording is on the sign above its door.

Americans widely support the idea of public schooling, but they reveal their true beliefs about it by often removing their children when given the chance. So do many public school teachers, one-quarter of whom put their own kids in private schools. These parents should not be criticized for acting in the best interests of their children. Anyone would, does, and should do the same.

The truth is, mass public education simply cannot compete with the variety of excellent alternatives available today. It has too many obligations and too few freedoms, as do all centrally controlled industries and bureaucracies. It cannot adapt quickly enough to important changes, nor can it treat the individual child with the particular care he or she needs.

The remedy is to stop forcing children and families into education bondage and instead allow them to choose the best option they can find. That will mean many changes for public and private education, of course. Given our current education poverty, this change is necessary, and it should be welcome.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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    Richard L Gray

    Great thing for children but not he ones who have good schools. We have a great school but because of choice we now have to build another new school. Because we have almost doubled. And who has to pay for it but the ones that live here not the 50% increase of the ones who chose to come here. Because of the increase locals are getting larger classrooms and less attention. There are good and bad things to the situation. But students that do not live in district should have the school taxes of their family follow them to pay more to cover the extra expenses. Instead Michigan gives them their share but the local school taxes go to their local school. Bad

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