As a policy analyst and opinion journalist, I have spent much of my career advocating the expansion of choice and competition in education. I purposefully use both of those terms, because I think that families making choices and schools competing for students are distinct but mutually reinforcing mechanisms for improving educational outcomes.
Parents and students should have as many school choices as possible because that increases the likelihood of a right “fit.” Schools vary in leadership, philosophy, culture, emphasis, and facilities. The needs of students can vary widely, too. Some thrive in large environments while others feel safer and more valued in smaller settings. For some, schools dedicated to shared religious values, or to specific academic or vocational themes, can be lifesavers. But for other kids, they’d be too confining.
Regarding what will suit the needs of a specific child, I don’t assume I know better than those who know and love that child. You shouldn’t make that assumption, either.
Education shouldn’t be structured like a public utility, serving everyone according to street address. Water is water. Electricity is electricity. But the services that schools provide — academic instruction, socialization, discipline, and both the “hard” and “soft” skills we need to succeed as workers, parents, neighbors, and citizens — are not indistinguishable commodities. Their precise content and proportions can and should vary according to the needs of students and the preferences of their families.
What shouldn’t vary so much is the capacity to act on these preferences. Affluent families have always enjoyed school choice. They can either afford private schools or to move into neighborhoods assigned to the public schools they perceive as “best.” It is ironic that many of those who complain the loudest about disparities of income, wealth, and privilege fight so doggedly against public policies such as charter schools and opportunity scholarships that expand school choice to low- and middle-income families.
Such critics are decidedly in the minority, however. A recent Civitas Institute survey asked North Carolinians if “parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school.” Only 6 percent said no.
The inevitable result of expanding choice is that schools will compete more intensely for students. Quite apart from the salutary effects of fitting individual students to the schools best suited for them, competition among education providers improves the quality of education provided.
No one should be surprised by this effect. We expect and rely on competition to drive quality in most fields of human endeavor, from industry and sports to government and elections. Indeed, another irony in the school-choice debate is that many who want legislation to break up business monopolies, who want lawsuits to preserve the checks and balances of competing branches of government, and who want constitutional amendments to level the electoral playing field do not also want to see schools competing for students.
If our goals are innovation and excellence in education, that’s exactly what we should want to see. According my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops, researchers have published 34 studies since 2008 that examined the effects of competition on district-run public schools. Only two found negative or no effects. In the others, competition prompted district schools to improve their performance.
For example, a 2017 paper published in the journal Applied Economics looked at education in West Virginia. As the share of students attending private or home schools rose in a county, test scores rose in the county’s district-run schools. “Our findings thus confirm that nonpublic enrollment and the competition it provides act to improve, rather than impede, public school performance.”
I don’t advocate choice and competition because I dislike district-run public schools or want to see them fail. I favor these policies because I believe an expansive, dynamic, and competitive education sector for North Carolina will maximize student success, accommodate diverse views and preferences, and make our state a better place to live, work, rear children, and build communities.
North Carolina has become a leader on school choice. That delights me.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide on UNC-TV.