School Choice: I Have Erred
I should point out, before the reader gets into this piece, that these are my personal thoughts.
Right around last Labor Day, I suddenly had a thought. I quickly made a calculation and realized that, as of the day after Labor Day, I’ve worked full-time in public policy for 25 years – a quarter of a century. While there really is nothing fundamentally more special about a 25th anniversary than a 24th or 26th one, it is a widely-recognized demarcation point. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to take time and write down reflections on my career. My work has touched on several policy areas, but I’ve been thinking a lot about public education lately. That’s the area I practically swam in when I started my career, so here are my thoughts.
On the day after Labor Day in 1994 I started work for a member of the Texas House of Representatives. He was the member who always carried a voucher bill, an issue for which I was thrilled to work. By that time, my wife had homeschooled our daughter, who was seven, for several years. At first, it was because of my daughter’s early desire to learn to read and then warnings that she would be ahead, and bored, in public school. But as time went on, we attended homeschool book conferences and found out there were many things we’d not been taught in the small-town, relatively high-quality public school we’d attended. Much of the omitted material had to do with the political theory underpinning the foundation of the United States as well as the nation’s exceptional history. In the meantime, my wife had substituted in schools and we discovered that much of the curriculum undermined the principles on which the United States was founded. Rigor was often replaced with what amounted to propaganda and social conditioning, not to mention the bureaucratic maneuvering that took place.
Because of my life lessons arising out of homeschooling, the bulk of my support for vouchers and school choice in general arose from a sincere belief that they were key to saving our republic. I reasoned that if entrepreneurs were teaching our kids, instead of government bureaucrats who often belonged to unions, the educational emphasis would be very different. Schools of choice, I reasoned, would have to compete, and they would compete on the quality of education that they provided. And, because of their founders’ backgrounds and risk-taking, they would be more likely to recognize the value of the foundations of free enterprise and limited government, with that reflected in the curriculum.
Sure, I cared about kids who were bullied. I cared very much that parents in a free country should have more say about their kids’ educations than to just make a decision about what attendance zone they lived in. And I very much cared about rigor and student outcomes with respect to how much and how well they were taught and how that would affect their futures in college and other settings. I still care about all these things. But, for me personally, my strongest motive in supporting school choice was, and still is, to save our republic.
Way back in 1994, a quarter of a century ago, I felt a real sense of urgency that school choice should be made universally available as soon as possible. In the intervening years, fourteen yearly cohorts of children have matriculated from first through 12th grade in the nation’s public schools. Most states have charter schools now, with about 3.3 million attending. Ed Choice says there are fifteen states with voucher programs, tax credit scholarships, Education Savings Accounts and such, mostly targeted to special student populations, with about 275,000 participating. Somewhere around 1.8 million kids are homeschooled. Combine these numbers with around 1.6 million in private schools, this means that after 25 years, the number of American kids matriculating outside of government schools is only around 9 percent of the school age population with maybe half of these in publicly-funded schools of choice.
All things considered, from my point of view, in 25 years we have made pitiful progress toward saving our republic. In those intervening years, I have heard more than once that any progress at all is still progress. Any mention I’ve ever made of the urgency of expanding school choice more quickly was immediately quelled with explanations of incrementalism. But with only a third of a percent of school children availing themselves of voucher-like programs after 25 years, that’s not incrementalism; it’s failure.
I recently saw a timeline for Venezuela. In 1992, Venezuela became the 3rd richest nation (I presume by GDP/capita) in the western hemisphere. But in 2001, Venezuelans voted in a socialist president because of income inequality. And now, Venezuelans are fleeing any way they can as their own government murders dissenters and people die for lack of food and health care.
Gallup recently published a poll that 4 in 10 Americans embrace some form of socialism. They’re confused about what socialism actually is, but there is little doubt the Venezuelans were, too. Another poll showed that younger Americans have a distinct socialist bent, with half of Gen Zers saying they would prefer to live in a socialist country.
This is 25 years of 20/20 hindsight talking now. We are losing our republic. While for 25 years education policy resources in the freedom movement have mostly flowed into getting tax-paid school choice for less than 5 percent of the school-age population, well over 90 percent of our kids have matriculated in a system that has helped to undermine our way of life. Don’t think so? How many of the nation’s history classrooms have embraced the New York Times’ “1619 Project”? For our nation’s survival, for the freedom of new generations yet unborn, there is no choice but to change emphasis. We MUST engage in the public education system, impact the curriculum, and move the needle in our direction. It might already be too late.
I am not advocating ending support for, and work toward, school choice. If we do not find more resources, though, I do advocate curtailment of that effort. It has not produced the results it should have by now. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, though. I will always advocate for school choice in all its forms, but at this point I believe we have no choice. Waiting for growth of school choice to save the republic has proven essentially fruitless.
My policy conclusion here is not made lightly. I have erred. I should have better minded the traditional public education store all this time. But now I admit the error and must figure out how to impact the educations of the vast majority of school children in order to preserve a way of life that could easily be lost within 20 years if ever we go the way of Venezuela. Already, in 10 years there will hardly be anyone left in the nation’s state legislatures with ears to hear my message.
Maybe it’s too late to have this conversation, but it seems to me that everyone involved in public policy should accept hindsight as the gift that it is and learn from it. I welcome comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Byron Schlomach is Director of 1889 Institute.