School Choice Is Not Enough

Conservatives must reengage with education reform, both in its structure and in the substance of what we want children to learn.
February 15, 2020
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Twenty-­five years ago, conservative ideas had considerable traction in K–12 education, as in such other domestic-­policy realms as welfare reform and policing. Burgeoning charter schools were celebrated as a new form of public education. Choice among schools—as among churches, colleges, entertainments—was emerging as a fundamental right of families in a free society. Vouchers were finally being tried—and generally found effective. Public education’s creaky, rule-­bound governance structures were in some places yielding to more flexible arrangements, less dominated by adult interests and more amenable to changes that benefit students. Teach For America supplied a route into classrooms for talented college graduates seeking to sidestep the unhelpful courses, wrongheaded thinking, and widespread indoctrination of ed schools. Academic standards were rising and results-­based accountability for taxpayer dollars invested in education became the watchword in reform circles, even on the center-­left—a sharp break from the never-ending call for simply spending more money. “Character education” was being taken seriously, even if widely misconstrued. And much more.

Yet no victory is ever final. The education establishment’s pushback against all of those reforms has been relentless. The system’s tendency to act like a giant rubber band, resuming its previous shape as soon as outside tension eases, is remarkable. Furthermore, in recent decades many of the aforementioned reforms, even if given conceptual life by conservatives, have been recast and transformed by progressives. Now most of the reform crowd is obsessed with social justice, racial disparities, the school-­to-­prison pipeline, and other shibboleths of the contemporary left.

Meanwhile, much education discourse and policy energy on the right has been reduced to a single talking point: more school choice is what America needs, with or without academic quality, with or without evidence of student achievement, and with or without the results-­based accountability for schools and educators that enables the “choice marketplace” to fulfill its public-­interest as well as its private-­interest role.

Let us be clear: we have long embraced school choice and still do. It’s faithful to America’s commitments to freedom and to markets. It’s compatible with a society that has long taken for granted that parents will and should select just about everything else for their children, from food and clothing to friends and activities to worship and residence. It enables those—including many conservatives—who crave robust character education and civic education for their children to seek out schools that provide it. For these and many other reasons, choice is essential to a vibrant education system that meets the variegated needs of an increasingly diverse society—and it’s made impressive gains. Choice must remain at the top of the policy agenda.

Yet one theme that emerged from the hot-off-the-presses book that we edited, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, is that choice is no cure-­all. Choice does not assure that children will acquire the citizenship, self-­discipline, and historical understanding that make them good parents, astute voters, and considerate neighbors. Schools of choice are not always good schools—and not all parents are skillful at distinguishing those that are. Thousands of kids, sadly, do not have functional parents—or, sometimes, other adults in their lives—to make informed choices on their behalf.

A single-­minded focus on choice also tends to neglect the huge fraction of American children who remain in traditional, district-­operated schools, including many who live in small towns and rural communities where those schools have functions that go well beyond teaching the young. It’s true that many traditional schools are academically mediocre, that they neglect key elements of a great education, and that they’ve largely had their policies, practices, pedagogies, and curricula driven from the left. But they’re the schools that most young Americans attend, and it’s fruitless—bloodless, too—to assume these schools will just evaporate.

Here we face education’s version of some larger debates now underway within conservative circles, debates that include the extent to which market forces and market-­based reforms—in all sorts of policy realms—are up to the challenges America faces today, especially in the parts of the nation that feel left behind.

We surely see a major continuing role for market-­based reforms within K–12 education. It seems to us self-­evident that Americans who care about kids and about education should continue to push for plenty more girls and boys to be given “exit permits” from bad schools and for many more of the schools they opt into to deliver the quality education they deserve. Robust school choice is, we believe, necessary for a well-functioning education system. Indeed, there’s some evidence that competition from choice also puts healthy pressure on the traditional parts of that system to improve. But it’s simply not sufficient. What’s needed is both more quality choice and a renewed and sophisticated effort to improve the outcomes for youngsters who remain in those traditional settings. Which means that conservatives shouldn’t shy away from—or despair at the prospects for—debates on how to effect such improvements.

To the contrary. We and the other authors of our new book believe that conservatives must reengage with earnest efforts at education renewal. They should engage personally when possible—in legislative committees, on state boards of education, on local school boards, and more. And they should speak up, as do we, for a trifecta of essential education emphases in the years to come.

First, let us refocus on preparing young people for informed citizenship. Not just civic activism, not just protest, not just the odd community-­service project, but the totality of informed citizenship for a democratic republic that values its pluribus but also requires a lot of unum. We need to stop viewing education reform in purely utilitarian terms—giving people stronger skills so that they are better prepared to earn a living and make the country prosperous—or just to get them through the college door. Nobody is saying those things aren’t important. As with academic standards, choice, and accountability, they’re necessary but insufficient to ensure either the well-­being and successful functioning of citizens in our republic or the well-­being and successful functioning of the republic itself.

Second, let us restore character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table where they belong. No human attribute matters more than good character, and nothing is more important for schools to do than to foster such character. We can see—around the planet, not just at home—the harm done by political leaders who lack character, by business leaders who lack virtue, by celebrity figures who lack morality—and by a citizenry that too often doesn’t seem to care all that much, or perhaps can’t tell the difference. While we can also see hopeful signs of renewed attention to character (and, often, religious faith) in pursuit of usefulness to mankind as well as basic integrity and decency, that renewal hasn’t reached very far into our institutions of formal education.

Third and finally, let us build an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity upon every youngster, including those who don’t go to college as well as those capable of zipping through it. Committed as we are to a solid, shared core in everyone’s curriculum, we mustn’t suppose that everyone is headed to the same destination or moving at the same speed. This is compatible with choice, too—a choice of pathways into adulthood as well as the velocity at which one will arrive there. While students should be encouraged as early as middle school to consider an array of career options, certainly by the midpoint of high school it’s important to open multiple pathways for them—and to make clear that these have equal merit. America has for too long overemphasized college-­for-­all at the expense of high-­quality career education and other honorable alternatives, thereby robbing many people of the dignity, respect, and “neededness” that make for a healthy society.

Supplying knowledge. Forging citizens. Forming strong character. Bestowing dignity. Placing those obligations front and center is what we conservatives need to accomplish for the sake of our children and the society they will inhabit.

That’s how to educate an American.

This essay is an excerpt from How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr., Templeton Press, 2020.

Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.