A Nonpartisan Approach to School Choice

Written by Dr. Ashley Berner, director, Institute for Education Policy, Johns Hopkins University

Education policy can feel like a zero-sum game in which nobody wins. Listen in on our debates, and you hear school-choice advocates referencing “failed district schools” or district leaders insisting that charter schools “rob districts of resources” and private schools “resegregate” education. Governors on both sides of the aisle leverage culture-war language to win elections. Even research gets weaponized. We desperately need a way forward that can carry us all the way into a world in which every school matters, every school is held to high academic standards and every parent can choose between high-quality educational options—as a matter of course.

Here are four suggestions to help us get there.

1. Paint the Bigger Picture

It is easy to argue from within the United States’ conceptual status quo that has districts on one side and non-district schools (charters, private, or home schools) on the other. In this familiar model, only the district school has real legitimacy as “public education,” and “school choice” is asking for an exception to the norm of district-only attendance. Why not paint the bigger picture? The bigger picture conveys that the district structure is anomalous among democracies. Most democracies fund a wide range of schools equally—and hold all of them accountable for the same academic standards. Moreover, most developing countries rely on civil society organizations to help deliver the benefits of K-12 schooling. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO), more than 80 percent of school systems include public-private partnerships. This approach is called educational pluralism.

The larger reality can help call our own into question. Must “public education” really mean only one thing? Not in global terms.

2. Tell the Truth about Data

Condemning or exalting entire school sectors ignores the fact that academic performance within every school sector is more variable than between them. There are great Catholic schools, and not-so-great Catholic schools; academically excellent district schools, and under-performing district schools; charter schools that change students’ lives for the better, and those that don’t. The question is not whether one sector out-performs another in the aggregate, but whether every school in every sector has the wherewithal to improve where it matters, namely academic, civic and, if applicable, spiritual outcomes.

School leaders can go a long way by being straightforward about strengths, weaknesses and the path to improvement.

3. Find Common Language

Conservatives tend to talk about the “market” benefits of school choice; competition, it is said, causes improvement. Progressives focus more on equity and allowing all families—especially low-income families—the agency to choose their children’s schools. Inviting new partners into the school choice movement requires a language that does not alienate either side. Crafting appropriate messages can be the first step in making the case for high-quality options for all.

4. Create Common Projects

Intellectual disagreement should not prevent practical partnerships. Just this last school year has shown substantial bi-partisan agreement about the Science of Reading, for instance, and the value of high-quality curriculum in general. States and local communities can stand up professional learning opportunities that connect teachers across the sectors.

At the end of the day, of course, votes have to be counted and laws passed. In the meantime, ratcheting down the rhetoric, creating new alliances and designing generous spaces in which all teachers and schools are welcome, could not help but benefit the next generation of young citizens.

Hear more from Dr. Berner in this on-demand webinar from NCEA: