Why is empowering parents in K-12 education so controversial?

As I have written before, the debate over school choice is often framed as an “either/or” argument — either you are for empowering parents or you are a supporter of public education.

But this debate “manages to ignore that all kinds of choices are hard-wired into American public education,” writes Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute in Education Week. “It skips past the fact that the affluent already choose schools when purchasing homes, so the debate is really about the options available to everyone else.”

“The fact that families want more options doesn’t mean they dislike their local schools,” continues Hess.

In fact, national polling shows that parents generally feel like education in their local school district is going in the right direction (59 percent) while more than three-fourths (76 percent) also support a school choice-based policy known as education savings accounts (often called ESAs).

“This suggests a path forward in finding constructive common ground in some of our school choice fights,” writes Hess. “After all, from start to finish, public schooling is a stew of choices made by parents, students, educators, system officials, and policymakers.”

Parents choose whether to send their children to pre-K, when to start kindergarten, or whether to opt their child out of sex education. Students choose groups and activities, which electives to take, and which books to read for book reports. Teachers choose where to apply for a job, which materials they use, and instructional practice. District staff choose policies governing discipline, curricula, field trips, and attendance zones.

Outside of school, we take for granted that families will choose child-care providers, pediatricians, dentists, babysitters, and summer programs. Indeed, many such choices involve parents or guardians making decisions that are subsidized by government funds. And the choices they make will have big implications for a child’s health, well-being, upbringing, and education.

Trusting parents to make K-12 education decisions for their children outside of the public school setting should not be viewed any differently. And allowing public dollars to follow a person to a private institution is not a new concept.

Consider, for example, how this plays out in higher education. Through Pell Grants, qualifying students across the country are allowed to use federal taxpayer funds to help pay for tuition at private institutions. Through the GI Bill, military undergraduate and graduate students can use the bill’s benefits to help pay for a private college or university, graduate school, or training programs. These students are using taxpayer funds to attend private schools in higher ed. These two programs operate very similar to K-12 school choice programs.

Staying in education, pre-K programs are another example of public dollars being used at private institutions. Many states allow the programs that operate outside the public school system (such as, private and faith-based childcare centers) to receive government funding to operate. In Minnesota, eligible families qualify for early learning scholarships — or as the Pioneer Press has previously called them “unofficial vouchers” — that can be used for public school pre-K or federal Head Start or at private childcare centers, home daycare, etc.

Even outside the education space, public dollars can be used at private institutions: consider food stamps programs, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing.

The controversy over whether families should be empowered to make the education choices that are right for their children is a distraction from what choice policies are fundamentally about: putting students before systems. “That’s the real promise of educational choice,” concludes Hess. “It allows parents, educators, and students to blur the old lines and rethink the work of teaching and learning.”