Reforms Beyond School Choice: How to Fix The Education System

December 4, 2019
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Students, educators and policy makers rally for school choice at the Texas Capitol on Friday advocating a voucher plan where parents could choose to remove children from low-performing public schools into better charter schools. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

School choice reigns as the leading discussion topic in education reform as many states begin prepping for January’s new legislative sessions. Right now, powerful coalitions of parents and legislators are pushing to expand charter schools and tax-credit scholarships in states like Florida and Arizona, and school choice advocates are hopeful that the upcoming Supreme Court case Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue could clear the way for more choice programs nationwide. But on the other side, teachers’ unions recently held a strike in Chicago, where they pushed for reforms to the existing public school system. It’s the tune they’ve sung for years—long have unions and many leftists been critical of choice advocates for not doing the same.

They’ve got a point. Why are we so focused on helping kids “escape” poor schools? Why aren’t we also fixing the education system we have? It shouldn’t be an either/or approach. Of course, no one should apologize for advocating educational freedom. But after decades of expanding school choice programs, the vast majority of American children still attend traditional public schools. It’s time we think of choice and reform differently.

Why not start with priorities that both groups agree on? Take, for example, the school finance system. While many aspects of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s newly-proposed K-12 education package understandably alarms conservatives and choice advocates, she rightly takes aim at the many state funding formulas that are unfair and outdated. Currently, kids aren’t being funded fairly based on their needs (English learners or low-income students, for instance), and property wealthy districts are able to shut out disadvantaged families.

Very few are happy with that system. Conservatives and libertarians want tax dollars to instead be distributed fairly so that all students are treated equally and funding more easily follows all kids to the school of their choice. Progressives want disadvantaged families to stop being shortchanged.

Fortunately, implementing state funding reforms that satisfy both groups doesn’t necessarily require more resources. Whether you want to increase funding or not, allocating resources more efficiently and equitably should be a priority. This requires changing state funding formulas so they reallocate more funds to children with additional learning needs and to districts with less local funding. Both sides have something to gain because, in many states, large groups of Democrats and Republicans represent districts that lose out on resources due to state formulas that fail to treat all students equally.

There are also many under-valued ways to allow more families access to customized learning within existing school districts—ways that left-leaning policymakers have embraced. One is for districts to attach funding to kids and give public school principals more authority. Right now, principals have shockingly little power in determining staffing arrangements, curriculum, and school operations. If they had more power to make independent decisions for the communities they serve, different school models could flourish within the same district. For instance, one school could specialize in social and emotional learning and one nearby could emphasize vocational instruction.

Giving existing schools more flexibility also compels innovation in education for gifted and unique students. In New York City Public Schools, for instance, dozens of schools are able to participate in the Mastery Collaborative. Under this model, many different types of students learn at their own pace through a competency-based curriculum. Disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and students ahead of grade level all follow personalized learning schedules rather than the common, one-size-fits-all classroom units that often fail to boost learning for students with varied needs. One of the schools in this program has created a curriculum track for mobile app design, where students go from brainstorming their own application ideas to using software to create a prototype.

Increased autonomy could also help address the issue of improving and attracting more talent to the teaching profession. Having effective teachers is one of the single most important factors determining a student’s later-life success. And yet, most school leaders have their hands tied when it comes to deciding who they hire, who they can terminate, and how teachers are compensated.

Granting principals the freedom to innovate with staffing and curriculum doesn’t even require state legislation—just a district administration that’s committed to funding kids more equally and handing authority over to the school leaders who are closest to the families they serve. These are reforms that have been pioneered in Democratically-controlled urban districts like Denver and Boston that many choice advocates have missed and failed to push for in their own communities.

And then we have the oft-unaddressed problem of transparency. Policymakers and families are largely in the dark about how much money is being spent from school to school and how those services are paying off for kids. Virtually everyone agrees that’s a problem. Texas passed an education law earlier this year, requiring districts to publish school-level spending data highlighting things like debt, spending on pensions and benefits, and teacher salaries before local voters approve tax hikes for additional education funding. Other states should follow suit.

To progressives, increasing transparency with actions like the one taken in Texas will further highlight the disparities in the current public education system. For limited-government folks, more transparency will expose common mismanagement practices such as districts that continue to hire staff and spend more taxpayer dollars despite having declining enrollment, financial problems, and poor student performance.

Expanding school choice is a great way to push innovation and change on all these fronts. But that’s not an excuse to be so focused on choice programs that we ignore the policies that impact all schoolchildren. Not only is this a better strategy for helping more families and expanding our understanding of choice, but it’s also a way to show those who defend the “status quo” that we’re not the bad guys—we share many of their priorities. And when it’s possible to lend a hand to so many of America’s students, we have an obligation to learn some compromise.

Christian Barnard

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.