School Choice

My Family Has School Choice. So Should Yours.

The pandemic showed me how many choices I have about my kids’ education. Everyone should have the same options.

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Some families, including mine, have always had school choice. But until the pandemic, I hadn't had much occasion to think about what that really means.

After a disastrous spring of two kids doing spotty online learning through their Washington, D.C., public school, we knew we needed a change: We were contemplating a move to the suburbs, an in-person micro-school run by some friends, and an expensive traditional private school with the sort of fancy testing and hygiene plan that the public system could never manage. 

We even briefly considered starting a compound in West Virginia with some pals.

We were anxious and confused, but had the means to rebuild a proxy of a service that the government collects money for, and promises to provide.

We ended up organizing a pod of six kids from three families in a neighborhood full of overeducated, annoyingly high-functioning D.C. people. It worked out great, and the "governess" we hired—as he calls himself—is adored by our kids.

For us, the city's faltering efforts to reopen became just a mildly stressful inconvenience. But what about people who can't afford these options and are already grappling with massive uncertainties and a sense of powerlessness in their lives, such as parents who are out of work, homeless, or struggling with substance abuse?

A recent ProPublica investigation told the story of a gifted 12-year-old named Shemar attending a fully remote East Baltimore public school. His family's effort to access the free Wi-Fi provided by Comcast "foundered quickly in a bureaucratic dead end."

"No one made sure that Shemar logged on to his daily class or completed the assignments that were piling up in his Google Classroom account." His grandmother was on the scene, but she "attended little school while growing up in a sharecropping family…His great-uncle, who also lived in the house, had dropped out of school in South Carolina around the age of 8 and was illiterate."

In Baltimore, "[c]itywide, about 80% of students had logged on," ProPublica reported, "but only 65% were reliably present, according to the district. Before the pandemic, the attendance rate was 87%."

In Los Angeles, kindergarten enrollment was down by about 14 percent; in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by 17 percent. And the prospects for kids who did enroll weren't great. According to one study, only one in three school districts required teachers to deliver instruction during the spring part of the lockdown.

There is money to give kids like Shemar the sort of choices that my family has. Inflation-adjusted per-student spending has risen 280 percent since 1960, and the U.S. currently spends over $15,000 per child each year. Yet when COVID-19 struck, for most families, there was no mechanism that would allow them to use that money to better serve their particular needs.

District schools with massive technology budgets struggled to get laptops, tablets, or hotspots to kids in need. School libraries full of books sat silent and unused. Playgrounds were roped off. 

Students lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics and one and a half months of learning in reading, according to a McKinsey study. Schools that predominantly serve students of color were most impacted. 

Meanwhile, we learned that opening schools for young children isn't a major risk. Brown University economist Emily Oster worked with a team to create a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases in schools. She says, "This summer there was this idea that we're going to open schools and that's going to be the thing that destroys everything. That does not seem to be true. We're not seeing schools as the locus of large amounts of spread. The rates are actually quite low."

Schools were imposing tremendous costs on families for very little benefit in controlling the spread of COVID-19. 

But even worse is the sense of powerlessness for too many families. Their lives had been disrupted, and despite the huge amount of resources in the system, they were being told that they had no alternatives.

We always knew that when local governments negotiate with teachers unions, the needs of students and their parents are the first to get traded away. During the pandemic, that dynamic has meant that attending in-person school is a privilege afforded to the children of the rich.  

Families like mine already have choices. The horrors of the last year have laid bare the fundamental inequality of denying the same power over their children's education to everyone else.

Written by Katherine Mangu-Ward. Edited and graphics by Isaac Reese.Camera by Meredith Bragg.

Music: "Killing Time" and "Just Before I Saw Her" by Stanley Gurvich

Photos: Everett Collection/Newscom; Circa Images/Newscom; KEVIN MOHATT/REUTERS/Newscom; MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/Newscom; Lev Radin/Sipa USA/Newscom; Johnny Louis/JL/Sipa USA/Newscom; Peter Titmuss/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Newscom; JOHN ANGELILLO/UPI/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Lev Radin/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Rafael Ben Ari/Dreamstime; Ales Utouka/Dreamstime

NEXT: The Fake Argument That School Choice Is Racist

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  1. It’s almost like there was an insurrection, and the governments no longer controlled the school, but outside private groups did.
    Not a peep from the socialists.

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  2. > and the U.S. currently spends over $15,000 per child each year.

    I’ve taught in an elite private school. It’s a fraction of that cost.

    1. It costs a lot of money to solve the education problems of a complex society. Look at how much we’ve spent already, and we haven’t even made a dent!

      1. I can solve it and it wouldn’t cost a dime, make all schooling private.

    2. Yeah I am not sure where they get numbers like that.

      1. Well, here is one site.
        https://educationdata.org/public-education-spending-statistics#education-spending-by-state

        “The United States spends an average $15,908 per pupil on postsecondary education and $33,063 per pupil on graduate and postgraduate education.”

        Of course the famous line about lies, damn lies, and statistics still applies. But there is an answer to “where did they get the number.”

  3. Yesterday I came across this:

    scholarshipfund.org

    They provide private school tuition assistance to families in need. One requirement of the beneficiaries is that they pay a minimum of 25% of tuition costs themselves, ensuring that families are personally invested and committed to their children’s education.

    I would implore everyone visiting this site to consider donating to an organization like this one. While vouchers could potentially be a good thing, options that don’t involve coersive collective funding models are immensely preferable.

    1. And yes, I realize that this is soliciting on Reason’s website. But, I figure that if the spambots can slam shoprite 500 times a day, then it shouldn’t be too big a deal if I rattle the cup for this kind of a thing.

    2. How do very poor children get an education in your scheme?

      And why is their parents’ poverty their fault?

      1. It’s not my scheme, and the founders of the non-profit have passed away. I suppose you could say it’s the board of directors’ scheme. You should check out the website; they’ve helped thousands of very poor children get an education. Seriously, consider donating, or not, it’s completely of your own volition.

        I really don’t know how you inferred I was blaming anybody for their living condition. As someone who spent a decent amount of my childhood in poverty (according to federal guidelines), I have a great deal of empathy for poor children. That’s one reason my wife and I chose to donate to Children’s Scholarship Fund.

        1. I don’t believe in giving poor people charity, I believe in making them not poor. I don’t even think I need a reason, no more than a heir needs a reason to claim the benefit of his dead parents’ work. But if you want to ever make some ethical claim either way, the fact that children are born innocent and deserving of every opportunity is precisely what makes “coercive collective funding models” necessary and just.

          The bottom line is that the more parents are to choose their children’s education, the more they will choose to indoctrinate them into a religion, and that’s not good for society, so I have an interest same as them.

          1. “Coercive collective funding models” have been far from a panacea in making poor people not poor. In some ways, they’ve exacerbated the issue. That’s kind of a straw man, anyway, because you’ll notice that I never advocated abolishing taxation or even public schooling.

            In your second paragraph, you’re effectively saying that parents have no right to impose their ideology on their own children, but you have a right to impose your ideology on other people’s children. Do you really not see a problem in that?

            1. When you put it that way.

              But all children are indoctrinated, and their parents and government are co-conspiritaors. How old were you when you found out Thanksgiving was a celebration of genocide and George Washington was a ruthless murderer?

              Of course even national religions are useful things, if you’re going to insist on having countries. I’m fine with that, but would change standards to be somewhat less jingoistic because our children are growing up in a globally networked world, after all. There’s only so stupid you can make them.

              As for bronze-age fairy tales, I have never seen the use for them. But I agree that bowing to the realities of nature and letting parents raise their own kids as they see fit is a worthy ideal. It’s just that between national religions and laws dictating their health and education standards, we’ve not had that policy in a long time.

  4. It appears that Reason has published more articles advocating school choice in the past month (as the Democrat’s most powerful constituency, teacher’s unions, aggressively lobby against school choice and to keep schools shut down) than it did during the four preceding years when Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos greatly expanded school choice and opposed school shutdowns.

    Instead, Reason spent the past four years trashing and lying about Trump, and spent the past year campaigning for Biden (whose biggest supporters were anti school choice teachers unions.

    If Reason writers and editors truly desire more school choice for children and parents, they wouldn’t have campaigned for Biden and against Trump.

    Such hypocrisy.

    1. It’s almost like all of these articles coincide with national school choice week.

    2. It’s school choice week. They publish a slew of school choice articles every January.

      I’m not going to say they’re unbiased when it comes to Trump/Biden, but school choice advocacy is something on which they’re pretty consistent.

    3. There is even a handy link that will show you all the articles from past years: https://reason.com/tag/school-choice/.
      There’s even lots of criticism of democrat politicians and very little TDS.

    4. That’s because school choice was obviously racist when Trump and Devos proposed it.

  5. All schooling should be private, the end.

    1. I agree. I wouldn’t mind the savings on my property tax.

      Or are you suggesting they should still get my money, only now I have no say in how it’s spent?

      1. Taxation is robbery.

  6. Kim Klasic promised if she was elected she would find a way to get school choice in her poverty stricken neighborhood. Her opponent, an elderly Democrat named Nfume didn’t even bother to campaign.

    Klasic only got 25% of the votes. I don’t know if the election was stolen from her or that the people in her 95% black community just didn’t vote for her.

    Now the kids in this very poor black community will slide backwards ANOTHER complete generation.

    At one time I actually CARED about what would happen to them. Now I am past that.

    Sanjosemike (no longer in CA)

    1. That’s too bad. I sort of forgot about her, but I saw some things about her a while ago and she seemed great.
      Mfume used to be the head of the NAACP. So he probably floats through on his name.

  7. There is a school choice already. It is a public school. There is no reason for the taxpayer to fund all these half-baked plans for things like charter schools–which have universally failed to deliver–or home school. Got a problem with the local schools? Participate and help improve them.

    1. Ha, this has to be parody, but just in case:

      “There is a school choice… a public school.”

      You have a choice to use Service A, or Service A you can use. Hell of a choice.

      “no reason for the taxpayer to fund… things like charter schools”

      You do realize charter schools are public schools, right?

      “which have universally failed”

      I think you need to do a little more research into this. Your statement is demonstrably false.

      “Got a problem with local schools?”

      Private, charter, and alternative schools are also local to the populations they serve.

      “Participate”

      We are all already forced to participate in public schools through the funding scheme.

      “help improve them”

      One of the main arguments for school choice is that it would help improve the entire education system because it would actually provide incentives for improvement.

      1. So how much more public money do you want to spend to increase everyone’s choices? How much more in taxes are you willing to spend?

        Choice doesn’t come from the universal free money hole. It’s a cost. So, how much more are you willing to fork up?

        Or do you really mean choice for me and go fuckest thouself to thee?

        1. I don’t propose any increase public spending. And to your second question, it doesn’t matter how much I am or am not willing to spend; because that’s not how taxes work.

          No, nothing in this world is free. See my comments above about contributing. My family and I live relatively modestly so that we can afford to give. That’s something important to us for religious reasons and because, selfishly, it makes us happy.

          I don’t really care who or what thouself fuckest. You do you, man.

          1. Charity is a terribly inefficient way of redistributing wealth.

            Of course as I’m sure you understand, how decent a person you are is relevant neither to public policy discussions nor to the well-being of anyone beyond your immediate penny-throwing distance.

            More schooling choices, in an environment in which we still expect all children to be educated, is simply a question of cost. I’m not sure the factory model we have now is the best possible system, but I do know that any scheme that introduces extra luxuries tends to cost more, which is frankly an odd thing for a low-tax proponent to want.

            On the other hand, I am all in favor of a robust and modern revamping of the schooling system, to the extent that it can be done without totally overwhelming public budgets, and without any input from people who believe Jesus and the dinosaurs coexisted.

            1. The point of charity is not to redistribute wealth, it’s to help others in need, and it’s a very efficient way of achieving that.

              A person’s decency is not relevant to anything, because it’s nobody’s place to judge the innate value of another person in the first place.

              No, more choice is not just a function of cost. That’s the exact line of reasoning that has held back the public education system so many people are forced to rely on. Efficiency, incentive-structure, cost-benefit assessments, etc are all relevant factors as well. My wife is a public school teacher, and I’m very aware of the “luxuries” already inherent in the system.

              I’m glad you’re in favor of revamping. I’m asking that you keep an open mind, and not reflexively dismiss or demagogue others…

              1. That is a good argument. You think a more market-based approach would correct inefficiencies in a government-run approach. We’ve done policy like that all over the place. Obamacare is a healthcare scheme only an insurance CEO could love. Still demagogued as socialism, though.

                I do not have as much faith in market forces, but I have more than you might think. I would just tend to be very, very careful about introducing profit incentives to anything as important as education (or prisons, for that matter).

                The point I’m trying to get at re: charity is that social insurance is a distinct thing from charity. Why would I have a problem with charity? Even if you only do it for the tax write-off, that’s, again, simply an inefficient means of redistributing wealth, but it has a certain aesthetic appeal. Social insurance, on the other hand, is a public service established by the people for themselves. A tax is not a gift, it’s your fee for living here. In a democracy, or free society, the poor avail themselves of the property of the rich because they can, and the rich let them because they can’t very well enjoy their yachts without their heads.

    2. Exactly, we should have one choice in grocery store and if they sell rotten food, we should pitch in to help them not leave meat on the loading dock overnight.

    3. You do know private schools exist right?

  8. Terrific article. Thanks for writing that KMW.

  9. Mind all the corpses you’re stepping on as you claw your way to the megaphone to advocate for the latest capitalist fuck-you obsession.

    Betsy DeVos resigned because the president tried to overthrow the government and install himself as dictator. You small government types don’t have credibility anymore.

    School choice. Right to work. Clear skies initiative. Boy you guys sure know how to rape language.

    1. Choice is about killing kids, not picking their schools!

      1. Wouldn’t it suck to wake up one day and realize you sacrificed all of your moral credibility in a bargain to ban abortion, only to realize what a terrible idea it is to ban abortion? It could happen. All you have to do is think about it for a second.

        If fetuses are babies, there are tens of millions of women in America who deserve to be in prison for first-degree murder. Do you really believe that, or have you been taken for a moron by interests that only care about abortion to the extent they can keep the debate alive and suck votes from rubes, not to save any alleged babies?

        1. ‘If fetuses are babies…’

          that there is someone stupid enough to phrase this in the conditional illustrates why our society walks around wrapped in filthy facecloths…

          ‘there are tens of millions of women in America who deserve to be in prison for first-degree murder.’

          I don’t make the laws; but, if it were a murder charge facing abortionists and their clients, there would be a lot fewer abortions, which I remember you lefties said you wanted…

  10. I’d say give people the option of spending their school tax on a scholarship fund to help children in private schools. If the taxpayer himself (herself) is the parent of poor children, they could spend the money directly on their own kids instead of forking it over to the state.

    In my scheme (and I think some states have something similar), the schools never get their hands in the public treasury, and there would be no issue (for example) of atheists paying for theist schools or vice versa.

    Also, it might slow the movement to put strings on the money, because it’s not “teh public” making the payments but individual members of the public.

    1. private scholarship funds, I should specify.

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    2. I like this idea. It would be as simple as offering a refundable tax credit for scholarship/tuition contributions. A drawback is that it throws one more wrinkle into an already convoluted and ridiculously complicated tax code. A simple tax code is probably a pipe dream anyway, though.

  11. Rather than let the children with parents who can find better schools have a choice, we need to make sure all schools are effective. That means that fund all schools adequately and we give low income parents more help from affordable child care for preschool children to parental coaching enabling parents to effectively stimulate their babies’ intellectual development. To do any less is to handicap our entire country.

  12. I send my kids to Catholic school until they are old enough to attend the local “A” rated public school.
    And I am Jewish.
    The Catholic School has a discipline code and one disruptive child is not permitted to stop the entire class from learning.
    The school reopened early, and the education is excellent.
    Even if there is some Jesus mixed in with the reading, writing and arithmetic,

    Can anyone help me with an answer to why she has to learn equations about the slope of lines in the Y intercept.?
    I certainly never used this in my career as a doctor, and I don’t know anyone else who calculates the slope of lines and y-intercept intercepts in daily life.
    Why do they live in that instead of some other math that is more useful in daily life?

    1. My kids go to Catholic school as well (we’re Baptists). Same basic situation, they receive a very good education, and it doesn’t bother me at all that they learn fancy prayers to saints.

      The Y-intercept concept, even if not using the actual formula y=mx+b, is important for extrapolation (I think that’s the right term?). I used the concept when I was in the grain business, for instance, when figuring how to hit mix and blend targets (protein, moisture, etc.) when loading a train. Even simple budgeting like when figuring how long to reach a $0 balance at a static payment rate.

      1. ‘Even simple budgeting like when figuring how long to reach a $0 balance at a static payment rate.’

        yes, but that is something that is best learned on the job after being exposed to the reality it addresses; teaching stuff like that to skulls full of much simply makes the skulls mushier…

    2. ‘Why do they live in that instead of some other math that is more useful in daily life?’

      I said as much to my plane geometry teacher when I was fifteen years old; he had no answer other than it improves my ability to grasp the unknown…how lame; in my estimation, any math higher than high school arithmetic should not be required for graduation…

  13. For decades public schools pushed mission creep under the idea that children, particularly underprivileged, needed to be at school more. They added breakfast and to get kids into the building before classes started. They changed half-day kindergarten to full-day. They added after school programs because it wasn’t wise to send the kids home. They created summer programs so that the kids wouldn’t be home alone and regress in their learning. They created 4K (4 year old kindergarten) because kids needed to be at school at a younger age.

    All of these changes, which required more money, were an effort to have more kids IN THE BUILDING more often. We were told over and over that the only solution was more time physically at the school.

    Now they claim that somehow “technology” magically erased the need for physical attendance. Forget “defund the police”. How about “defund the schools”?

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