Part of the promise of school choice is that access to better education will result in increased economic mobility for those trapped in poverty. In our state, programs like the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) give children in underperforming schools or lower-income homes scholarships to private schools. It provides access to choices that have historically been reserved for the affluent.
The reasoning goes that if you take a poor child from a poor school and give that child a better K-12 education, he or she will have access to better options for college or job training. That better job opportunity will be the on-ramp to a higher socioeconomic class and all that comes with it: more social stability, better healthcare, etc. It also enables that person to contribute more to the tax base and consume less public assistance over their lifetime, which is another common good.
There is growing evidence that it works.
Cities and districts which adopted school choice measures years ago, like the District of Columbia, have enough data to see marked improvement in graduation rates and parental engagement among parents empowered with the ability to choose the best school for their child. That boost in the graduation rate alone is a proven predictor of increased future income.
Only in a more market-based educational system, driven by vouchers that give the power of choice to all regardless of income, can all families gain a sense of ownership over their child’s education.
The majority of Americans understand that in almost all cases, they are better at making decisions for their families than the government. The Cato Institute’s 2019 Welfare, Work & Wealth national survey showed that 58% of Americans favor taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
And who favored them most overwhelmingly? The poor.
They know better than the rest of us that the nanny-state promise of a quality education doesn’t deliver for those in lower-income districts. In true American fashion, they desire the freedom to make some of their own choices, rather than being forced to eat what the one-size-fits-all system of mass education is serving.
To be clear, the improved outcomes associated with school choice are not simply about teachers and test scores.
Some schools—public or private—may offer a curriculum that is a better match for your child’s learning style than others. Some may offer unique extra-curricular opportunities that give your child a sense of belonging and investment in the school, driving better academic performance. And some schools offer education complemented by religious instruction or a disciplinary environment that is valued by parents and students.
We have to let people drive. We can’t preach that people should have a greater sense of personal responsibility while simultaneously stripping them of the autonomy required to be responsible.
And what if the economic mobility driven by school choice is fueled by more than pure academics? What if it’s far more nuanced and…human than that?
Transcending social and economic barriers is multi-faceted, and requires more than educational adjustment.
It’s about freeing children and parents from silos of cultural disadvantage and allowing them to wander across the boundary lines and “do life” with people who haven’t been trapped in poverty for generations. It’s about allowing children to have exposure to families where two-parent households are the norm. It’s about rubbing shoulders with kids who expect more out of life, and know—because of their own parents’ and grandparents’ education and professional experience—how to get there.
If all you ever see and know is brokenness, you have a hard time believing anything else is even possible.
You don’t realize that the combination that opens the lock is not a single choice, but a series of choices: better education, work ethic, managing your money wisely, staying married, taking care of your children, etc. We learn these things through exposure.
It’s a mistake to think that support for school choice and support for public education are mutually exclusive concepts—they are not. School choice just introduces a level of accountability to public education that its bureaucrats have never had to cope with: customers who can choose to spend their tax dollars elsewhere when dissatisfied. Great public schools will continue to thrive in a more market-based educational model, and the bad ones will give way to other options.
Some individuals will grab hold of the opportunity for economic mobility inherent in school choice and others will not.
But it will be by their own hand, not by that of the government.
That’s what liberty looks like.
Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.