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The Pandemic Illuminates Misguided Opposition to School Choice

By Russell Withers. September. 18, 2020

It’s back-to-school season, but school looks different this year and the COVID-19 pandemic has led a growing number of parents to question the assumption that enrolling their children in the public school system is their best option. For many parents, of course, it remains the only option.

From private schools to private tutors, families with financial means are not subject to the same constraints as those less fortunate. Across the country there is a trend of private schools fully opening while public schools remain limited or fully virtual. Some families are forming “pods” in which a handful of children get together with a private tutor to either fully homeschool or have direct interaction with an instructor while navigating the virtual education offering their local public school provides.

The reaction to the “disparity” created by private school openings or by families forming education pods is a great source of irony for school choice advocates. Right on cue, The New York Times points out that “[p]rivate schools have always had more flexibility, and usually more money, but never has that disparity made a bigger difference than now,” and it “highlights a national divide.” Similarly, The Times points out that education pods “are likely to be most popular among families of privilege” and “may worsen educational inequality." In my home state of Texas, the Texas Tribune wrings its hands with the headline: “As school re-openings falter, some Texas parents hire private teachers. Others can only afford to cross their fingers.” Indeed, continues the Tribune, “[b]ut the do-it-yourself approach to education threatens to leave behind students of color and poorer families.”

These are the same arguments that proponents of all forms of school choice have been making for years. If the goal is to provide students of color and poorer families the same educational opportunities as wealthier families, that’s the entire purpose of school choice programs. The most recent fight on this front in Texas was Senate Bill 3 (2017), which would have provided families who opt out of the public education system a deposit of funds that could be used broadly for educational expenses. Had Senate Bill 3 passed, students of all backgrounds in Texas would be considerably better situated for the upcoming school year than they are now, but the bill did not pass. Skim the witness list from public hearings on the bill and you’ll notice a trend in the opposition: teachers unions, public school administrators, public education advocacy groups, superintendents, principals, and school district trustees. The entire public education power structure came out in force to oppose the bill. They succeeded, as they often do when it comes to any reform that challenges the status quo. I wrote about this a few weeks ago with respect to charter schools when Thomas Sowell’s new book (Charter Schools and Their Enemies) came out:

Charter schools in Texas have the same enemies as those in New York. If there’s any doubt about this, just look at the witness list to see who is for or against any bill that touches on things like creating new streams of funding for charter schoolsmaking it easier for successful charters to take over failing traditional public schoolsmaking the admissions process for charters more onerousplacing geographic restrictions on where charter schools can open, or adding red tape to charter admissions processes, to name a few examples. There’s a pattern. 

Charter schools and education savings accounts are only two avenues of school choice. The same groups come out in force to oppose every kind of choice all the way down to expanded virtual offerings, which is interesting in this moment as the public schools force millions of children to use an ad hoc virtual system they’ve adopted for the current school year, despite openly opposing such systems as a matter of public policy. In Texas, the virtual school statute is woefully behind current innovation. That weakness has caught up with us in 2020, compromising the education of hundreds of thousands.

Texas is a conservative state, but powerful public education interests have thwarted school choice at every turn. That was easy for parents to ignore when their children hopped on the bus every morning, but now it’s right in everyone’s face. Many parents are now forced to recognize for the first time just how limited their options are. Perhaps they will help turn the tide and secure choices for future children.


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