“Public” education is akin to a religion in that many people accept the need for it on faith. We all want all children to get a good education, and that won’t happen without public schools, many people presume. But we also all know, at least when we reflect, that many students do not get a good education in public schools. We know that public schools, and even learning tracks within particular schools, vary radically by quality. We know that many kids do not progress as fast as they could, either because they are behind or ahead of others in a class.
What is public education, anyway? If we mean that all students go to assigned schools operated and funded by government, then we don’t have public education, not entirely. According to the Colorado Department of Education, public school enrollment for 2021–22 is 887,000 students (rounded). Of those, nearly two-hundred thousand attend “choice” charter, innovation, or online “public” schools. Over fifty thousand students attend private schools (as of 2019–20), while nearly sixteen thousand students officially homeschool (as of 2020–21). (Note: A lot of other “homeschoolers” officially attend a private “umbrella” school.)
The government part of it is essential to the definition. If a nonprofit organization or a wealthy person opened a school and invited every student in the neighborhood to attend, free of charge, we would call that a private school, not a “public” one, even though it’s open to the public.
I think what drives support for public education is an egalitarian ideal of equal educational opportunities, even though we all know the public schools fail many children. We need a system, many people believe, in which students are guaranteed a slot at a specific school with a specific amount of funding ($9,014 per pupil, says the Department of Education). That system offers the mirage of equality without the substance. Yet a lot of people would rather cling to the fantasy of equality than consider an alternative in which students generally get a better education but in which equality is not the main purported aim.
The major alternative view is that what most matters is family choice. Parents best know their children and are in the best position to help them succeed with their education. Choice is scary, because some people might not make the best choice. This is a particular concern of educational elites who think they have some special insight into schooling without which parents would be lost.
And, with choice, wealthier families can afford more expensive options, which grates against the egalitarian ideal. Wealthy families already spend more on their children’s education even when they use the public schools, but at least the public system maintains a pretense of equality. Again, a lot of people would rather have imaginary equality than actual quality in education.
But the choice philosophy is breaking through in some areas. Politicians in our corner-neighbor Arizona recently expanded “eligibility for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to every child in the state, establishing a new national standard for school choice,” reports the Goldwater Institute, which supports the reform.
Upon signing the bill (House Bill 2853), Governor Doug Ducey indicated that a major aim of the choice reform was to improve the quality of education of students currently faring the worst in public schools. “Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools. Today, we’re unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents,” he said. The reform aims to lift especially those at the bottom, and, if some wealthier families do even better still, is that really a problem?
Quality in education has little to do with amount of funding anyway. Sure, hiring good teachers matters a lot. Putting up fancy buildings and sports facilities, hiring a lot of administrators, and funding the latest educational fads don’t make much difference. So what really matters is giving kids a good, solid, basic education. You know: reading and writing, math, literature and art, science, history. Beyond that, the marginal returns on education funding are probably pretty low (and might even be negative insofar as it buys things that interfere with the basics). So, as a practical matter, I see lifting the students at the bottom as largely achieving egalitarian aims anyway.
Ducey’s release indicates how the new Arizona system works: “Arizona families who participate would receive more than $6,500 per year per child for private school, homeschooling, micro schools, tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that helps meet the needs of their students outside the traditional public school system.”
Is this still “public education?” I guess so, depending on what you mean by that. It’s government-funded anyway.
We can ask questions about how much “choice” Arizona’s system really entails. How much regulation will come down on the “private” schools that accept the money? What about the “choice” of people forced to indirectly finance schools they don’t like? What about the “choice” of lower-income people without children forced to subsidize education for the children even of wealthy families? We could talk about means-testing educational dollars, but that might send the hard-core supporters of public education into fits.
So long as Colorado government pertaining to education is dominated by teachers’ unions and their lackeys in the Democratic party, we are unlikely to see any such far-reaching reforms in Colorado. Still, we should keep an eye on the Arizona program. And we should ask ourselves some serious questions about why we accept sometimes-terrible educational outcomes in the name of equality.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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