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March 2013 - Volume 18, Number 1


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School Choice: Providing Hope and Opportunity

by Lindsey M. Burke

“Outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy,” Ronald Reagan once said. Given the fact that markets outperform monopolies in every aspect of our lives, why do we consign something as important as education to government-run institutions?


The results of our assignment-by-ZIP-code public-education system over the last half century show that we shouldn't. Graduation rates have remained stagnant since the 1970s, with roughly three-quarters of students graduating. In some of America's largest cities, fewer than half of all students complete high school.


Reading and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — often referred to as the nation's “report card” — is lackluster. Across the country, just one-third of fourth-grade students are proficient in reading; a mere 40 percent are on grade level in math.


Even in what are traditionally thought of as the higher-performing suburban schools, academic achievement is woefully lacking. Researchers Jay Greene and Josh McGee found that “out of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the U.S., only 6 percent have average student math achievement that would place them in the upper third of global performance.” Six percent.


School choice provides hope. It provides hope in the form of Rocketship Academy, a hybrid online learning charter school network. It provides hope in the form of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the pioneering Arizona initiative that allows parents to customize their child's educational experience with control over education funding. It provides hope in the form of a voucher for a low-income child in Washington, D.C., now able to fulfill her potential at a private school of choice.


Whether through education savings accounts, tax credit scholarship programs, vouchers, online learning, charter schools, or homeschooling, school choice allows access to quality education options that best match individual children's learning needs.


School choice has led to improved academic outcomes, higher graduation rates, and increased student safety. It has improved parents’ satisfaction with their child's academic and social development, and satisfaction with their child's school overall. And it allows parents to access educational options that meet their child's unique learning needs.


School choice also introduces competitive pressure on the public education system that lifts all boats, helping not only students who exercise school choice, but students who remain in public schools.


All the positive benefits of school choice were highlighted across the country recently as part of the third annual National School Choice Week. It's the world's largest-ever celebration of school choice, with events taking place in all 50 states. National School Choice Week is designed to show the success of choice, as well as the need to expand options for every child.


In all, 3,600 events took place across the country, including 2,500 events at schools, including public schools, private schools, and magnet schools.


Some people say choice is no panacea for improving the American education system. That may be true. But choice creates the conditions necessary to spur schools to implement reforms and strategies that work — or risk losing students and their money.


Reforms such as performance pay for teachers and the elimination of “social promotion” have positive impacts on student learning. The best schools will embrace initiatives that work in order to provide the best education possible to their students.


There are a host of other reform measures that schools can and should pursue. Without the competition presented by choice, they have little incentive to do so. Choice is the catalyst for the systemic reform that is so desperately needed.


Parents should be able to choose where their children attend school. And they should have the freedom to finance those options with their share of education funding, in a flexible manner that allows education to be customized.


State and local policymakers can begin by re-imagining what “public education” means. By thinking in terms of educating the public, not in terms of government-run schools. Next, they can reconfigure education funding formulas to provide children — not institutions — with education funds, following the children to the school or education option of their parents' choice.


Over the past century, Americans have been the beneficiaries of countless advances in technology, industry, and their general quality of life. American education, however, has proven largely impervious to innovation, and the benefits thereof.


That can and must change. It all begins with school choice.


Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. This article was first published by the McClatchy News-Tribune wire and it appeared on February 8, 2013, on, the Website of The Heritage Foundation and is reprinted with permission.

LIMITS is one of our quarterly membership newsletters, arriving in March, June, September, and December. It consists of short articles and essays on protection of human rights by limiting the powers of government.


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