Arguments for school choice generally have two parts: first, that culture-war battles over school policies and curriculum content will fade when those can be chosen by families; and, second, that students are best served academically when parents are able to select their kids' educational environments.
While the culture-war argument has recently dominated, academic concerns just got a big boost from new indications that kids are struggling to learn in public schools. That is, they're still struggling to learn in public schools.
As pointed out earlier this week by Elizabeth Nolan Brown, "new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress offer more evidence that students fell significantly behind during school shutdowns." The grim results of the NAEP—a government mandated test for fourth- and eighth-graders—are best summed-up by the program's own press release:
A majority of states saw scores decline for fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and reading between 2019 and 2022, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation's Report Card, released today by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The national average score declines in mathematics for fourth- and eighth-graders were the largest ever recorded in that subject.
The results weren't a surprise, since they were telegraphed by an earlier release of NAEP scores for 9-year-olds that found "the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics."
That's not the end of the bad news. In addition, "the national average ACT Composite score for the high school class of 2022 was 19.8, the lowest average score in more than three decades," according to data released earlier this month by the nonprofit organization that administers the college readiness exam. Also, "the average SAT total score declined slightly for the class of 2022—1050 compared to 1060 for the class of 2021," with only 43 percent of those taking the College Board test, which competes with the ACT, meeting college-readiness benchmarks.
Of course, as test administrators point out, we've just gone through a pandemic and its related disruptions. But that's precisely the point for critics who predicted that kids would suffer from school closures, social-distancing, masking, and often badly administered remote learning. In fact, this month's lousy NAEP scores didn't correlate so closely with state pandemic policies as some anticipated. Brown University economist Emily Oster points out that, from 2019 to 2022, which includes both periods of pandemic closure and return to relative normality, states that emphasized in-person learning generally saw less decline in math scores than those that went remote, while there was "no relationship" for reading.
That leaves room for debate about whether the alleged public health benefits of school closures outweigh learning losses. But here's the thing: whatever the reason, those test scores plummeted. And nobody was especially thrilled with the results achieved by public schools even before COVID-19 appeared on the scene.
"Anybody paying attention to the course of modern school reform will not be very surprised by this news: Newly released SAT scores show that scores in reading, writing and even math are down over last year and have been declining for years," Valerie Strauss wrote for the Washington Post way back in 2011. "And critical reading scores are the lowest in 40 years."
Public schools didn't need masks, Zoom classes, and social distancing to do a terrible job at educating students; they managed that all by themselves long before the pandemic. The virus gave them a sharp push downhill, but they were already sliding. That's a big part of the impetus behind the movement to empower families to choose their children's education without having to pay twice: first for public schools, and second for alternatives that they find superior. Even as policy changed slowly and most families picking education alternatives still had to pay taxes for public schools, choice gained ground.
"Across the United States, parents have an increasing number of educational options for their children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling," the NCES noted in 2019, before COVID-19. "Although the majority of students attend traditional public schools, the numbers of students attending public charter schools or homeschool programs are growing, according to recently released data."
Since then, data from NCES and independent sources continues to find public schools losing ground while learning options gain support.
"All three of the alternatives to district schools—charter, private, and homeschool—appear to have gained from the shift away from the district school," Harvard University's Education Next reported in August of this year after a survey of parents. "The private-school share ticked up to 10 percent in 2022, as compared to 8 percent in spring 2020. The charter-school share climbed to 7 percent from 5 percent over the same period, while the homeschooling share edged upward to 7 percent from the surprisingly high 6 percent level registered in 2020, which itself had constituted a doubling of the 3 percent share in 2016 reported by the U.S. Department of Education."
District public schools still retain the lion's share of students at about 77 percent. But that share is declining along with test results, even as fatigue grows over debates about lessons and school policy. Pandemic measures, coinciding with growing debate over politicized curricula, added urgency to the issue for parents who would much rather guide their children's education than fight with school administrators and other parents.
Many officials at the state level have made efforts to accommodate families that want options. Arizona and West Virginia recently adopted policies allowing education funding to follow students to private schools and homeschooling. School choice has emerged as an important issue in campaigns for public office over the past year after playing a huge role in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race.
And now we have miserable NAEP results to underscore the failings of public schools and to emphasize the need for competition and choice in education. There is nothing about plummeting math and reading scores to soothe parents worried that their children aren't learning in school. And the arguments over why are less important than decisions about what to do next. For many families, that will involve abandoning public institutions that failed their kids in favor of education options of their own choosing.