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Friday, October 16, 2020

Why Even the Childless Should Want School Choice

A child’s future should not be determined by their zip code—especially when this system traps people in cycles of poverty.

Lucélia Ribeiro

At a rally this week, President Donald J. Trump repeated his promise to extend school choice to every child if re-elected.

I don’t have or want kids. No, I’m not going to change my mind – even as a little girl I barely liked being around other children. But while I don’t intend to raise children of my own, I think it’s imperative that families with kids receive access to educational freedom. For that reason, Trump’s promise made me excited.

In fact, I think school choice is the civil rights battle of our time and that everyone should rank it high on their list of important reforms.

I grew up with school choice, as do most middle-class to wealthy families, but it came at a price. My father, the first in his family to go to college, was working full-time as a pastor and putting himself through a PhD program throughout my early childhood. My mother, who had obtained her teaching degree in Alabama, decided to homeschool us after observing the sheer incompetence of many of her teaching peers. Both of my parents recognized the importance of a good education and its essential role in shaping future prosperity, and so they sacrificed for us.

At the time (1990), homeschooling was not even legal in all 50 states, nor was it cheap. I often think about the financial burden this choice placed on my family (we essentially paid for school twice – first in taxes and then in homeschooling costs). Because my mother had to choose between our education and outside employment, my parents lost out on years of retirement income, savings towards our college tuitions, and access to things they wanted.

Homeschooling is incredible. I got to spend my days with my parents and siblings. I was never bullied or forced to grow up too soon. I only did school for a few hours a day, and my curriculum was customized to meet my interests. I learned how to think, instead of what to think. All of this provided me with a fantastic education, a healthy sense of self, and a lifelong love of learning.

Research shows I’m not alone in this experience. Studies are finding that homeschoolers are more tolerant than their peers, enjoy closer relationships with their families, and academically outperform public school graduates.

In the book Unschooled by Kerry McDonald, another former homeschooler describes her experiences like this:

“I felt very free and independent as an unschooled teen, and had the time and pleasure to read as many books as I could access, write novels and short stories, travel, and pursue passions such as theater, music, dancing, and gymnastics. I also engaged in assorted self-created internships throughout my teenage years.”

Another account from the same book, this time by Sophie Biddle says this:

“Trusting young people is one of the most radical notions in our society, but childhood and human development are not linear paths. Really, it’s a journey.”

For many years, homeschooling was maligned by many and those of us who participated were painted as socially awkward, religious bigots, or hillbillies. Thankfully, that is changing rapidly and the practice is booming. That’s more children free to pursue their passions, learn at their own pace, and receive an education in the safety of their own home – free from the bullying and social pressures.

Now, compare that to the educational environment experienced by most kids in this country.

Nearly 90 percent of American children attend district schools, many of which are failing. It is estimated that 1 in 5 American adults are functionally illiterate. On international math tests, we rank near the bottom of industrialized countries and our high school graduation rates continue to plummet. For those who may struggle with spelling due to our failing public education system, that spells trouble.

On top of that are the added woes of COVID-19 and the impact the lockdowns are having on our school children. If their district even re-opened, and that’s a big if, kids are being forced to wear masks for hours upon hours or spend their days in front of a computer screen. This isn’t normal. It’s bad for the children, and it’s bad for their parents – many of whom are now struggling to work and teach from home with no added resources.

How long can a country remain great with an uneducated populace? It can’t. “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” stated Thomas Jefferson (sort of). Not only does the lack of a good education lead to poverty, increased chances of criminality, and a lower life expectancy for the individual, but in a democratic republic, it also harms society at large.

When my neighbor’s vote matters as much as my own, I find it to be of the utmost importance that they are capable of thinking through important policy positions and casting a competent vote. When my taxes pay the price for those who fall into poverty or criminality, I find it essential that we provide pathways out of these systems. When our society as a whole becomes less educated, we will all suffer the consequences.

Currently, our public schools have no impetus to improve because they have no competition. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman explained why this is a problem:

“The difference is not between schooling and other activities but between arrangements under which the consumer is free to choose and arrangements under which the producer is in the saddle so the consumer has little to say. If the consumer is free to choose, an enterprise can grow in size only if it produces an item that the consumer prefers because of either its quality or its price.”

“The situation is very different when power is in the hands of a central government. The individual citizen feels that he has, and indeed does have, little control over the distant and impersonal political authorities. The possibility of moving to another community, though it may still be present, is far more limited.”

These institutions are a government monopoly that most people cannot afford to break out of. On average, public schools receive $15,000 per year, per pupil. That’s way more than most private schools charge. But very little of this makes it to the classroom or student. Instead this money largely goes to a bloated administration.

Once you understand that, you’ll understand why government-school employees and teachers’ unions work so hard to block school choice. It’s about their bottom line, not the child’s. Ironically, the average school teacher would likely also benefit from school choice and be able to command a higher salary. But they’re being lied to about this by their unions.

Imagine if instead each American family received that $15,000 in an Education Savings Account (ESA) that could be used towards private schools, homeschooling, online course, or their local public school (should they earn it). All families would have the ability to pick the schooling situation that’s best for their unique child, schools would have to compete for resources and offer better services to survive, teachers could command better pay, and families could even roll over unused funds towards higher education.

A child’s future should not be determined by their zip code—especially when this system traps people in cycles of poverty, disproportionately people of color—neither should it be determined by the value of their family’s home. School choice is about equal opportunity for all children and creating a better future for our country. You don’t need to have kids to want what’s best for our nation’s children. Demand school choice now.

  • Hannah Cox is the former Content Manager and Brand Ambassador for the Foundation for Economic Education.