Bryan Griffin: Having A Choice | WAMC

Bryan Griffin: Having A Choice

Mar 18, 2020

Democrats vying to unseat Trump are promising a lot of “universal” things.

Universal healthcare, universal paid parental leave, and even a universal basic income. Frequent among these is also the promise of “universal education.”

Anything universal is a bad idea. “Universal” means government run, and a universally provided product or service is the only option available in that industry. Universal healthcare would mean all government hospitals and doctors. Universal education would mean all government or public schools with no other options.

When you hear the word “universal” just imagine the DMV and then apply all of the feelings and opinions you associate with that experience to whatever other part of your life the government wants to control.

Unlike healthcare, we already have an extensive public-run school system in this country. America has some fantastic public schools and our teachers deserve praise and admiration for their service to the next generation. Still, an alarming number of American public schools exhibit poor pass rates, failing grades, and safety concerns.

In big-government minded cities and states like Detroit, Baltimore, D.C. and California, public schools have alarming issues. Reading levels are several years behind standard. Reports of violence and sexual violence are plentiful among students.

If the school system were truly universal, there would be nothing a parent could do about these problems. Fortunately, our education system still has some free-market alternatives. Proponents call this “school choice.”

Schools not run by the government but still regulated by the government are called charter schools. There are also private schools. In some jurisdictions, tax-paying parents can opt for a voucher – a credit for the amount of taxes they pay towards the public school system – which can be spent on tuition costs for charter or private schooling instead of their kids being stuck in a failing public school.

These parents still have the luxury and benefit of choice – and this is indeed a very good thing.

School choice should be more widely regarded as the solution to the broken parts of our public education system. Right now, it is predominantly supported by Republicans but it would serve every parent to get behind the movement, for several reasons. Here’s why:

Having a choice is always better. It promotes quality. If a school isn’t meeting the needs of a child, a parent should be able to select another place for their child to receive an education without having to move. If a school knows it must be run in such a way that the services it provides are of a quality that attracts customer parents, things don’t fall between the cracks and problems are fixed. This is competition, and any industry is better for it. Competition is what we stand to lose in the healthcare industry if Democrats get their way.

Choice is also important for parents to be able to choose the framework of the education their child receives. So long as the basic standards are met, a parent should be able to opt for or against the approach to learning. This could mean curriculum specifically suited to special needs or a particular religion. This could also mean choosing to remove a child from a curriculum with an unwanted agenda. Consider the California public school system’s recent complaints of pushing a leftist political bias on students in state-mandated classes. If you don’t find this problematic, consider how you would feel if it was a political bias from the opposite side. Or consider the nation-wide failings of the Common Core curriculum. Without choice, there is no way to keep schools accountable for these things.

At present, a parent paying any amount of tuition without the return of a voucher for tax payments is double paying for their child. Many cannot afford to do this, so the public education system entraps children. School choice is the most empowering option for low-income neighborhoods. Parents in lower socio-economic classes, who still have to pay taxes, should be able to direct that money via a voucher to keep their children out of failing or forgotten schools and to receive an education that will break the cycle of poverty.

The list goes on and on for the failings of a single-choice public school system that could be addressed with voucher competition. This includes things like overcrowding, safety concerns, low teacher pay, specialized curriculum shortages, the lack of innovation, and an over-emphasis on standardized testing. Vouchers don’t eliminate the public system – they improve it.

State and federal standards can still be kept and met in a choice-based system to complement the public one – and college and job markets will help maintain these.

The bottom line is that a single-choice public system has no accountability – there’s no motivation to fix problems or better the services offered because there’s no risk of losing customers. Thus, any amount of money thrown at failing schools doesn’t serve to fix the problems, but only to make them more costly to the taxpayer.

The solutions our country so desperately needs in every industry, including education, are not universal but localized. Let parents make critical choices for the education of their children, and let schools prove themselves to their potential students. You’ve paid for the education system; don’t you want the rightful ability to make it better?

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.