Our Educational System Should Be Driven by School Choice

As both a parent and former Secretary of State, it has become increasingly clear to me that for the United States to prosper, our school system must undergo fundamental change.

Our work to deter the wicked designs of adversaries like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will mean little if our future generations are severely deficient in mathematics, science, reading, and writing. Today, many of our public schools are captured by powerful, self-interested teachers unions that push woke ideology into the classroom instead of equipping students with the fundamental tools they need to succeed in the world. At the same time, many state and federal governments have become so beholden to the political clout these unions possess that they no longer put the interests of students and parents first.

Rapidly growing awareness of this issue is encouraging, but recognition of the problem is far from enough: Conservatives must actively champion school choice, pursue creative policies that increase competition and the autonomy of parents, and help create new organizations that chip away at the established power of teachers unions.

Studies have shown that stronger unions have a powerful negative influence on educational outcomes, regardless of a state’s spending levels. Using the pandemic as a case study, it isn’t difficult to see why: The places where teachers unions exert the most influence – cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles – had a far more difficult time getting schools reopened due to self-interested sabotage efforts by unions led by Randi Weingarten. And of course, the unions did not limit their influence operations to the state level – they actively pushed the Biden Administration to extend its lockdown guidance long past the point such guidance was possibly justifiable.

We saw the power of teachers unions on full display in North Carolina just last week, where Governor Roy Cooper ridiculously declared a “state of emergency” over the fate of the state’s educational system after the Republican-controlled legislature passed a universal school choice bill. What was the emergency? That conservatives were “aiming to choke the life out of public education” by diverting public school funding toward the expansion of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program. The true emergency, of course, is that one-third of the state’s public schools are now classified as “low-performing,” with nearly every school district containing at least one such school. Cooper’s state is failing to provide basic education for its students – thus, a reform aimed at allowing all students in the state to receive a scholarship to attend the school of their choice, regardless of income level, makes all the sense in the world. Governor Cooper recently chose to send one of his children to private school; he should recognize that this bill’s goal is to give the same choice that he possessed to all parents.  Ensuring parents have the freedom to choose where to send their kids to school is the case all conservatives should be making.

We should be weary, though, of making the same mistake as progressives: simply shuffling taxpayer funding from public schools to other kinds of schools won’t cut it. So long as schools are beholden to government funding, ideologically-driven interest groups – like the American Federation of Teachers – will seek to influence government funding and decision-making , just as they do now at both the state and federal level. To avoid this outcome, we should put taxpayer funding back in the hands of the people who care most about a child’s education: the parents.

Programs like Educational Savings Accounts are well-designed to achieve this outcome. Instead of the state deciding how to spend the taxpayer’s dime on education, money previously set aside for public school funding is instead allocated to parents on a per-pupil basis, which parents can use to pay toward private school tuition, homeschooling supplies, curriculum materials, and more education-related items. If we are truly committed to funding public education, we should trust parents to make the best educational decisions for their children. Our policies should be based on that trust.

America’s educational system should reflect the principles that have made America the most exceptional nation in the world: freedom and competition. Free choices made by parents are the only thing that can drive real competition among schools, and only a competitive model will generate the kind of academic excellence America needs to prosper.