The following is an op-ed I wrote for the Koch Fellowship about school choice being the best way to capture the immeasurable aspects of education that bureaucrats, standardized tests, and old men at Harvard can’t objectively figure out. School choice isn’t perfect, I know. But I had a word limit, so bear with me:
Perhaps teachers’ unions are correct to say that standardized tests are poor measures of teachers, schools, and student achievement, but there is a way to hold schools accountable and judge whether a school is delivering on the essential immeasurable areas: school choice. There’s no need for a “standardized” way of assessing schools if parents get to make their own measurements and choose accordingly.
The rationale behind school choice is simple. When given the choice of different options for schools, parents will choose schools that succeed. The schools either satisfy their customers and stay in business or fail to deliver the goods and shut down.
Teachers’ unions and education traditionalists point to studies showing the (allegedly) inconclusive effects on achievement of charter schools and vouchers. Aren’t these the same standardized tests the traditionalists say can’t be used to measure teacher effectiveness? The scores of certain charters and vouchers may be lower than those in nearby public schools, but look at the parents who are sending those kids to the “choice” schools. The popularity of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for the program’s participants shows the popularity that choice brings. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a study looking at the opinions of minorities towards vouchers, found that “70 percent of blacks earning annual incomes less than $15,000 support vouchers for use at private and religious schools.” No matter what standardized tests say about the success of certain schools, isn’t the popularity of the schools among their respective parents the best way to truly measure their success?
Consider the market for automobiles. There is no measurable way to assess the ‘goodness’ of a car. Some people value fuel efficiency. Others value horsepower, stereo system, leather seats, trunk space, or sheer size. So how do we tell which car is the best? We don’t. Because people value different things, we give them different choices and everyone is happier compared to if we just had one one-size-fits-all automobile. Sure, sometimes cars turn out to be lemons, have a short lifespan, or are unsafe. But after a while, people come to realize the good cars from the bad and the good ones stay in business.
Now compare this to K-12 education. Some parents prioritize raising their kids with an opportunity to play scholastic sports. Others just want their child to be safe, feel welcome in a community, establish curiosity about the world, or be raised with religious values. For this reason, the colleges we can choose from are big and small, religious and secular, liberal arts and vocational, diverse and homogenous, conservative and liberal, party schools and dry schools. Someone at Brigham Young doesn’t care how well Berkeley’s students do on a standardized test because Brigham Young’s students value different aspects of a college. The same subjective valuing applies to K-12 schools. Why should we try to have a one-size-fits-all K-12 education system? Public schools can have corrupt administrators, poorly manage their funds, or have an ineffective curriculum. But because parents often have little choice, unlike the market for automobiles, bad public schools often don’t go out of business. In fact, they frequently get more money.
As long as parents are, on the whole, more satisfied with the charters or voucher schools they send their kids, doesn’t that make them a success? Let’s expand choice and allow the parents to decide what’s best for their children.