School Choice and Its Foes

School Choice and Its Foes

My brief talk Saturday at FreedomFest identified those who try to deny school choice to the children of America and the tactics they use to do it. 

On a recent panel at FreedomFest, a libertarian gathering held yearly in Las Vegas, I along with National School Choice Week President Andrew Campanella, Friedman Foundation State Programs Director Brittany Corona, and Education Director for the Goldwater Institute Jonathan Butcher each had eight short minutes to delve into a different facet of school choice before about 60 people. Choice Media’s Bob Bowdon, who moderated the brief 50 minute event, wanted to leave some time for some audience Q&A.

My assignment was to cover the Grinches, the naysayers, the Chicken Littles, who at every turn try to prop up the government monopoly on education and severely limit parents’ choices as to where to send their kids to school. The way the enemies of choice usually operate is by smears, baseless allegations and lawsuits, which are many and usually revolve around money, accountability or religion. Typically the litigants are the ACLU, taxpayer groups and the teachers unions, with the mainstream media and the same unions providing the obloquy. Just a few examples:

In Nevada, religion and money are issues in two different lawsuits. The ACLU went after the state’s new universal Educational Savings Account program on religious grounds, but a judge ruled that it was “neutral with respect to religion” because parents – not state actors – decide where the money is spent. A second suit brought by a coalition of taxpayer groups also challenged the program, claiming that the Nevada Constitution requires the legislature to set apart money to be used to fund the operation of public schools “to the exclusion of all other purposes.” The ESA program is still on hold in the Silver State with a resolution possibly coming later this month.

In Florida, money was the basis of a 2014 lawsuit, but this past May a judge ruled that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program relies on private, not public, funding and explained that the plaintiffs, the Florida Education Association (a state affiliate of the National Education Association), failed to demonstrate any injury resulting from the program.

And just a year ago, money and accountability were the issues in North Carolina where a group of taxpayers opposing a voucher measure argued that private school vouchers drain needed resources from public schools, and that it violated the state constitution to send public money to unaccountable private schools that are often religious in nature. (The draining resources line of thought is akin to Target claiming that new Walmart in the neighborhood is “draining its resources.” The acrid smell of the monopoly mentality is overwhelming at times.) In any event, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the legislation creating vouchers “did not overtly counter the state’s constitution, and therefore the court could not rule the program unconstitutional.”

As mentioned, much of the mainstream media does their best to support the monopoly, and denigrates any privatization of education. Most notably, Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss unabashedly disparages school choice every chance she gets. “Why the movement to privatize public education is a very bad idea” and “A primer on the damaging movement to privatize public schools” are just two recent examples of her blind allegiance to the status quo. And it’s no mystery where she gets many of her ideas; she and other members of the traditional media take their cues from the National Education Association, whose website boasts heaping sums of vacuity. With a few minor changes, the union has been using the same lame, fact-free talking points for years now, never really acknowledging the results of the myriad of studies that have shown positive results for choice. Just a few examples:

The NEA says that there is no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement, despite many studies disproving that assertion. Perhaps the best source on this subject is the Friedman Foundation’s Greg Forster, who releases a yearly scorecard on what empirical studies have revealed about school choice programs. Forster looked at 18 of them and found that 14 showed improvement in the academic outcomes for those students involved with choice programs. Two studies showed no difference, and two in fact affirmed that choice hurt students. (Both of these involved Louisiana’s new voucher program which admittedly has some bugs that the state is addressing. But I’ll still take 14-2 any day.)

The NEA also claims that vouchers hurt public education. But this has no factual basis either. According to Forster, out of 33 studies examining the effects on public schools where choice is in play, 31 have shown an improvement in public schools. One study showed no effect and one study unfortunately did show a negative effect on public school students. But again, 31 to 1 sounds pretty impressive to me.

Yes, competition works, even in education.

One more false claim by NEA: “Vouchers do not reduce public education costs.” Again, the union is not even close. Forster looked at 28 studies, and 25 of them showed a positive impact on taxpayers and 3 showed no effect. Not one study showed that vouchers further burdened taxpaying citizens.

I finished my brief talk by mentioning that in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld voucher programs under the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, because voucher money goes to the parents, not to the religious school. That decision sent all future parental choice litigation to state courts. In December 2000, sensing where the Court might be heading, NEA lead counsel Robert Chanin stated at a Manhattan Institute conference on school choice, “If and when the Supreme Court agrees to hear one of these cases, it is my hope that the Court will reaffirm the position taken in 1973 in Nyquist. But even if it does not, the legal battle will not end. We will abandon the Establishment Clause, and continue to challenge voucher and choice programs under state constitutions on whatever grounds are available to us from lofty principles such as church/state separation, to Mickey Mouse procedural issues like the single-subject rule.”

That pretty much sums it up: The union and its fellow travelers are invoking Mickey Mouse (not to mention Goofy) tactics, forcing millions of our most vulnerable children to attend schools that are far from the happiest place on earth.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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