A New Era of Educational Freedom
Is the current public school system the best way to grant quality education to all people? Public school may have increased access, but a one-size-fits-all approach has created inequitable outcomes. It is time to redirect our focus to students to fix our broken system.
Education under COVID-19 can be described with many words, but “freedom” would not be one of them. Children are now experiencing their 3rd school year affected by COVID-19, some of whom may have never experienced schooling without the weight of a global pandemic. Although COVID-19 ruptured many other societal institutions, education was perhaps one of the most damaged. The United States was far from immune from a pandemic that, as UNESCO put it, “exacerbated a pre-existing education crisis.” School closures during COVID-19 only deepened the pre-existing systemic racial and socioeconomic educational cracks.
The US Public Education System Prior to COVID-19
Even prior to COVID-19, the US education system was far from perfect. The modern public school system is ubiquitous, but public schooling in the US used to almost be non-existent. Education is not listed a single time in the US Constitution, and during the Founding Era education largely fell to families and non-governmental bodies such as churches. Public schooling in America did not rise in popularity until the 1840s under the leadership of Horace Mann. Mann, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, advocated for mandatory education of many children under the same universal, publicly funded school system.
The idea of a “common school” was born. The Center for Education Policy at George Washington University writes,“Mann and other proponents of ‘common schools’ emphasized that a public investment in education would benefit the whole nation by transforming children into literate, moral, and productive citizens.” Influenced by Mann’s ideas, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory education law in 1852 and public schooling began to spread.
Public schooling enrollment increased but the nation soon began to grapple with questions of racial inclusion. States put up racial barriers for education, leading to a 10% enrollment rate for students of color in 1870 compared to 54.4%for their white counterparts. The results of the Civil War opened educational opportunities for African American children, but those opportunities were stymied by Jim Crow laws during Reconstruction. Other minority students also fought for their right to gain access to public schools. Anti-Chinese sentiment in California led to enrollment in public education being restricted to "all white children, between five and twenty-one years of age" in 1866 while Mexican-American students in Southwestern and Midwestern states were placed in public schools designated as “Mexican” schools. The infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling cemented a national “separate but equal” nature of educational segregation until Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.
Education in the United States is constitutionally a local and state responsibility, but major pieces of federal legislation during the 20th century increased the federal role within education for both access and quality. The Cold War began a renewed interest in education and combined with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” to increase federal involvement with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The Department of Education became officially established as a Cabinet agency in 1980 with its first listed purpose as “to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.” Large scale education bills such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990), No Child Left Behind Act (2001), and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) continued the push for all children to receive education.
The Problem with Inflexibility
Although the public school system has attempted to increase educational equity, the system continues to have a major missing piece: freedom of choice. Education funding, whether federal, state, or local, is almost always tied to districts and schools rather than students. According to Public School Review, around 48% of school funding comes from state sources and 44% comes from local revenue sources, many of which were built on property taxes and zip codes. Students are assigned schools via zip code and often cannot attend other schools while utilizing that funding. Roughly 70% of students attend their “assigned” public school.
Historical racial and socioeconomic divides are entrenched by locking students and their funding behind the current school district system. Houses can be a few blocks apart yet have completely different educational options. Time Magazine described school districts as “invisible lines that carve up the country, carefully separating the rich from the poor.” A 2021 Urban Institute’s report on racial boundaries in education commented, “Persistent school segregation is the legacy of racist housing policy and the product of intentional decisions by the local leaders who determine school attendance zones.” Strict school zones, combined with funding from home values, create a perverse cycle: high-value homes create high-performing districts which then increase the value of homes as parents flock to those districts. A 2019 Joint Economic Committee report calculated that the highest quality public elementary school had an 4x higher median home price average than the lowest quality schools.
COVID-19 cemented these existing barriers as families remained beholden to their assigned district. Research from Brookings Institute showed that students of color were much more likely to be in remote-only school districts. Wealthier families boosted private school enrollment by pivoting from their district to nimbler, in-person school options, but those left behind were plagued with ineffective virtual offerings and/or the inability to remain engaged with virtual instruction. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that technological and language barriers disparately affected students of color.
Parents of color and low-income parents are forced to play a costly waiting game: sit and hope their assigned district schools improve. As the Aspen Institute recently pointed out, test scores have mostly improved for all students over the past twenty years yet there are still significant gaps in achievement for Black and Hispanic students. COVID-19 brought these harmful effects of the rigid educational system to the surface. A December 2021 report by McKinsey & Company summarized COVID education as a “K-shaped recovery” with learning loss disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic students as well as those at a lower socioeconomic level.
Inequitable funding is part of the problem, but the inability for families to use funding for individualized needs continues to dampen any positive impacts of funding increases. Funding formulas tend to leave districts with students of color and low-income behind, although lawsuits and changed formulas have fought to close the funding gap. Funding alone, however, is no silver bullet. US inflation-adjusted education funding has risen by 280% over the past 50 years but, as a team of researchers determined in 2019, achievement gaps have remained mostly the same.
The solution is not to blindly pour more money into an inflexible system but change the system through school choice. School choice is defined as allowing “public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs —whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment families choose.” At its core, school choice is about restoring agency to those who currently lack it through granting individual families and students access to funds.
Wealthy parents already live out school choice: families can either pay to send their child to a private schooling option or selectively live in districts with access to high achieving public schools. These parents can also quickly adjust to changing circumstances, as evidenced by COVID-19. School choice opens educational opportunities to groups that have historically been prevented from accessing them. Low-income families and students with special needs are the primary beneficiaries of the existing school choice programs, according to analysis from education reform organization EdChoice.
School choice is, sadly, not widespread but the initial results have been very promising. A vast majority of the 170 school choice studies show promising increases in test scores, educational attainment, civic values, and parent satisfaction, and savings to taxpayers. This is not surprising. Opening options allows for more innovation and better “matching” of students to effective educational programs. As the Cato Institute posits, “Theory suggests that people make choices based on what they believe to be the best match for their children, and those choices lead to incentives for individual schools to improve.”
Although not all states have forms of school choice, the struggle of education during COVID has brought school choice to the national spotlight. Choice programs went from just twelve in 2001 to seventy-six in 2021, and many different organizations called 2021 the “Year of School Choice.”
School choice is not an instant panacea to all educational problems, but it is the crucial first step to let innovation and flexibility help those who previously lacked options. Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute writes, “…choice alone is not ‘the answer.’ It is only a start—a tool that can help crack open closed systems, free families from schools that aren’t right for their child, and allow educators to seek or create environments where they can do their best work.” Educational freedom shines because it pulls from the deep, unending well that is society’s care for the next generation.
Returning to “normal” life continues to be a moving goalpost, but perhaps our sights can be set on something better than what “normal” was. The current public education system has a noble goal to improve access, but the inflexibility perpetuates echoes of racial discrimination and socioeconomic divides. This season of COVID has only caused these rifts to grow stronger. Fighting for a new world with educational freedom is the best way to radically change ineffective systems and open opportunities for families and children who need it the most. It is time for a new era of educational freedom.
Solomon Chen is an educational policy research associate for a think tank in Washington, D.C. As someone who was home-schooled throughout K-12, Solomon describes himself as a product of school choice and hopes all families enjoy the best educational opportunities for their students. Solomon is a former Falls Church Anglican Fellow and previously worked with the civic education program at the Philanthropy Roundtable as well as Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute.Solomon holds a degree in political science
from Biola University and was a member of Biola’s
Torrey Honors Institute.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022