School Choice

You Prefer 'High-Quality Public Education' Over School Choice? Define 'High-Quality.'

Families don’t all want the same sort of education for their children. They should be free to choose.


Arizona has one of the more liberating school-choice policies in the country, allowing funding for a student's education to follow that child to chosen learning options. The state also has a newly minted governor who is hostile to education freedom. Despite attending a private school, Katie Hobbs wants to roll back the state's scholarship program and offer all kids "high-quality public education" instead. With her allies, she pretends that's a goal easily defined and achieved with more money, instead of a hotly debated topic involving irreconcilable differences over priorities, education philosophies, and ideology.

After Hobbs opposed school choice in her inaugural address, Fox News Sunday host Shannon Bream asked, "Why shouldn't all students have a chance at what you said was so important in your own life?", especially in light of "the private Catholic high school that you went to."

"My parents made that choice," Hobbs answered. "I begged them to send me to public school. We sacrificed a lot. There were times when we were on food stamps. So, it was a choice that they made, and they struggled to make that choice. What I want is for every student in the state of Arizona, no matter where they live, to have access to high-quality public education."

What Is This "High Quality" of Which You Speak?

OK. So, beyond throwing her parents under the bus for picking a school other than the default one assigned by government, Hobbs clearly thinks that "high-quality public education" is a knowable and achievable standard. She's not alone in that assumption; the American Federation of School Administrators also holds "high-quality public education" in opposition to independently chosen alternatives, as does the American Association of University Women of California. Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools argued there should be an enforceable right to a high-quality public education even while conceding that "endless struggle between the federal government and the states often leaves education policy mired in half measures and recriminations."

But if high-quality public education is a shared standard, what's the source of that endless struggle? Could it be that we don't all agree on what high-quality education looks like?

We Don't Agree on What Kids Should Learn

"A recent Pew Research Center survey found widespread partisan divisions in the topics that parents of K-12 students across the country believe are appropriate for children to learn about in school," Pew reported last week. "A 56% majority of districts in Democratic-voting areas mention their diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] efforts in their mission statements. That is true of just 26% of districts in Republican-voting areas, a difference of 30 percentage points."

The split can also be expressed as a rural vs. urban/suburban divide over the ideologically charged issue. Either way, there's sharp disagreement on incorporating DEI themes into curricula. That's unsurprising, given that DEI often stands in for other differences of opinion on sensitive educational matters.

"Americans are deeply divided over how much children in K-12 schools should be taught about racism and sexuality, according to a new poll," the AP reported a year ago. "The poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows stark differences between Republicans and Democrats who want to see schools make adjustments."

Far beyond race, sexuality, and DEI issues, Americans have long disagreed on interpretations of history and current events. That's why publishers tailor lessons in school textbooks for different audiences around the country.

"The books have the same publisher. They credit the same authors. But they are customized for students in different states, and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation's deepest partisan divides," correspondent Dana Goldstein wrote in 2020 for The New York Times.

OK, so forget about divisive curricula. We can at least agree on measuring our success at teaching kids the basics, right? Well, no.

We Don't Agree on Testing

Recent years saw a revolt against standardized testing in schools across the country. Many parents and students opted out, no matter what the rules said. "The problem, as educrats are discovering, is that there's a hell of a lot less agreement than they thought about what kids are supposed to learn, how they're supposed to learn it, and how fast it should be learned," I wrote in 2015.

Much of the controversy was over the adoption of Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics at various grade levels. While intended as a means of guaranteeing high-quality education, it turned out that not everybody was on-board.

We Don't Agree on When Kids Should Learn

"Since the beginning of this year, many legislators and critics have dubbed Common Core 'developmentally inappropriate,'" North Carolina Public Radio noted in 2014. "They argue that the new Math and English standards should be repealed because they are not suitable for some students."

The debate echoed an earlier one over national educational standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act. "With its emphasis — obsession, critics would say — on standardized testing, the law became unpopular among many teachers and parents and technically expired in 2007," NPR reported in 2015.

Lawmakers in conservative states are again pushing back against federal dominance of education, this time with a combination of resistance to burdensome regulations and objections to politicized curricula.

"Republican leaders in two states — Tennessee and Oklahoma — have taken steps to cut ties with the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that they'd rather lose billions in federal funding than comply with what they view as onerous mandates from Washington," according to education-focused The74.

So, when Hobbs and her allies argue that school choice, which lets families pick the educational philosophies, environments, and curricula that suit them, is a distraction from "high-quality public education," just whose definition of "high-quality" do they have in mind? Clearly, there's not just one.

You Pick Your "High Quality" and I'll Pick Mine

We've spent decades arguing over lesson content, educational standards, and assessment methods only to discover time and again that Americans simply don't agree on these issues. Why isn't it better to encourage people to explore their own definitions of high-quality education for their children instead of trying to force all kids into one-size-fits-some government institutions that are doomed to serve as battlegrounds for people who could, instead, peacefully go their own way?

Hobbs may publicly resent her parents for sacrificing to send her to private school instead of the public institution she says she'd have preferred. But she wants to put all children in the position of suffering schools inflicted on them by government officials. School choice frees families to choose from a range of options that meet their definition of "high quality." If more people can pick the education that suits them now, that means fewer people resenting Hobbs and company in the future.