John Hood: School choice isn’t a conspiracy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 2, 2024

By John Hood

North Carolina is becoming a national leader in expanding choice and competition in education. For some North Carolinians, this is a source of pride. For others, it’s shameful.

Our state ranks fifth on the Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power Index. On the Cato Institute’s index of educational freedom, we rank 12th. By other measures, North Carolina is middling but poised to leap into the top echelon, powered by recent expansions of our Opportunity Scholarships and surging interest in charter schools.

I’m not going to deny that there’s a partisan dynamic at work. Most states that create or expand programs promoting choice and competition have Republican legislatures, Republican governors or both. And GOP lawmakers skeptical of educational freedom tend to lose their primaries, while Democratic lawmakers who favor it tend to attract spirited primary opposition (though they don’t necessarily succumb to it).

But I will have to say that to a large extent, critics of school choice have sidelined themselves by making foolish and counterproductive arguments.

It’s not as if school choice is invulnerable to criticism. All public policies have pros and cons, upsides and upsides, potential benefits and evident risks. Program design matters a lot. There are better and worse ways of expanding educational freedom, in my view, just as there are better and worse ways of enacting any policy change.

Rather than subjecting school choice to normal policy analysis, however, many critics peddle conspiracy theories. They allege that advocates are out to destroy all public schools, or resegregate schools, or use choice programs to instigate a Christian nationalist takeover of America.

These allegations are based on willful or reckless misrepresentation of the idea’s origins and public support. School choice is a popular idea, embraced by most Americans, not some fringe idea that requires extraordinary explanation. Choice and competition have long been evident in higher education, in preschool education, in health care, and in other fields where government funding plays a major role but producers and consumers are free to make their own decisions about where and how services are delivered.

I’ve spent all of my adult life around school-choice proponents. Indeed, I spent my childhood around them, too, since both of my parents were public-school educators who strongly favored vouchers and other means of expanding educational opportunity. The caricatures of school-choice leaders presented by progressive critics bears no resemblance to the actual human beings I know, work with, or love.

There’s no undercover scheme to be revealed here, no mystery to be solved. People favor school choice because they think it will best serve the interests of students, families, educators and taxpayers.

Academic achievement is certainly part of the pitch. I would submit a fair reading of the empirical evidence shows that as parental choice and school competition go up, so do average test scores and educational attainment.

For example, a series of studies by Ludger Woessmann of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Martin West of Harvard University, and their colleagues found countries that foster competition by directing tax dollars to private schools tend, all other factors held equal, to produce higher scores on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. Poor students benefit disproportionately. “Rather than harming disadvantaged students,” they concluded, “accountability, autonomy and choice are mostly tides that lift all boats.”

Those aren’t the only outcomes we’re interested in, of course. One purpose for public finance of elementary and secondary education is to encourage responsible citizenship and community engagement. Choice and competition are helpful here, as well. Authors of a recent Educational Psychology Review study examined four civic outcomes: political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge and skills, and voluntarism and social capital. They found that, on average, “private schooling boosts any civic outcome by 0.055 standard deviations over public schooling. Religious private schooling, particularly, is strongly associated with positive civic outcomes.”

Still not convinced? Fine. Offer counterarguments. But if you charge policymakers with racism or call them other names, don’t expect them to listen.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (