In Defense of School Choice

The United States ranks third globally in expenditures on public education as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Furthermore, in 2012, the United States’s spending on elementary and secondary education was $11,700 per student, 31 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s average of $9,000. In 2012, American students ranked average: 28th in science, 36th in mathematics, and 24th in reading. Eighteen countries outranked the U.S. in all three subjects. This data suggests that increased education spending is not enough to improve our public schools. 

Over the past few decades, debate has continued over how to fix America’s underperforming public education system. The proposed solution of “school choice” has recently gained momentum, as more and more states implement such options in various forms. School choice gives students more educational opportunities, including access to charter schools, voucher programs, and private school scholarships. 

Many people worry that school choice will divert dollars away from vulnerable school districts, causing students to suffer. While schools need a certain level of spending to cover necessary costs from teachers’ salaries to utilities, many districts have enough funding to cover these resources and could improve their performance without increasing expenditures. One indicator of this possibility is that private school students tend to outperform public school students, despite having budgets 34 percent lower than taxpayer-funded schools.

Opponents of school choice also worry that these policies burden already-struggling school districts. People fear that higher-achieving students will flee failing school districts, resulting in a further loss of funding and resources for these troubled schools.

However, 29 out of 30 major studies on this topic found that school choice improved struggling schools as well as outcomes for students (just one study found no significant effects). Schools most affected by competition tend to perform slightly better after the implementation of school choice, meaning that both students who change schools and students who stay in struggling districts benefit. 

Another common argument against school choice is the belief that it leaves disadvantaged students behind. But to the contrary: Most students participating in school choice programs come from low-income communities. Additionally, a study by the Brookings Institution and Harvard University found that private school voucher programs made African-American students 24 percent more likely to enroll in college. 

The one downside of school choice, as I see it, is that not all students have the means of transportation to attend “choice schools.” Choice programs have been very successful at involving disadvantaged students in many of America’s cities, where a variety of schools are close to students and public transportation to them is available. But school choice has helped even rural communities. At least 33 states already have free public online education, which provides a form of school choice to students who may not be able to attend other schools due to transportation barriers. Furthermore, online education has a significantly lower overhead cost, saving school districts money without compromising the quality of education. 

Though it would be unwise to slash public school funding, a myriad of studies show that despite increases in spending, American public schools in general continue to struggle. To combat these challenges, it is time that Americans reevaluate the effectiveness of education spending and invest more in alternative options, such as school choice. While opponents fear that school choice hurts disadvantaged students and struggling districts, the data suggests otherwise. School choice could be much of what America needs to improve its struggling schools.