No, School Choice Doesn’t Hurt Those Who Don’t Choose; That’s Just a Talking Point Used to Fight It

By: Bob Bowdon

How did I begin National School Choice Week 2016? By reading yet another blog contending that throwing money at public schools is a great way to improve them. Admittedly, even some pretty smart people get caught up in that one, sometimes even those who’ve invented popular social media sites, like maybe… Facebook.

But today, I’m not writing about the issue of spending per student. I’m writing about a different myth, (although it’s also mostly promoted by its direct beneficiaries). It says that if school districts lose enrollment because families make different choices, the districts will do a worse job of educating the kids that remain — even if spending per student at the districts is held constant. School choice, in other words, is just terrible for the kids who remain in the old school district. This myth is a doozy. But boy, do people cling to it dearly.

A new national poll of 700 likely voters released by the non-profit group Just Facts reveals a plurality, 46%, believe these options do hurt the academic performance of the kids who stay put, (and surprisingly, more Republicans, 53%, believe that than Democrats, 44%). Only 38% properly reject the notion.

First, the premise has the problem of being wrong. Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation looked at 23 empirical studies that have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, he reports “22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.”

Just FactsWhile a separation of eight points in the Just Facts poll isn’t exactly insurmountable, this particular misunderstanding is vexing because it requires such an implausible set of assumptions. For starters, to buy it you’ll need to believe when it comes to schools, bigger is better and smaller is worse — already a head-scratcher — but just wait; it gets weirder. Smaller schools are only worse if school choice is the reason the school got smaller. In other words, all kinds of other reasons a school gets smaller should miraculously not trigger your righteous indignation and concern for kids, just school choice. Got it?

In other words, if 100 students leave High School X to attend a charter school or government-supported private school, yes, you need to be good and angry that the kids “left behind” will suffer in abject sadness at the hands of the rapacious, savage privatizers. But if those same original 100 students leave to attend a new district-run magnet school, no worries — you should instead be happy that a new option has emerged. If the exact same 100 kids were to leave to help populate a new traditional district school, also no hand-wringing there either. (In fact, it’ll be nice, now that the kids left at X High will have more space. They’ll even have a better shot at making the Varsity Whatever Team.)

Let’s say an enrollment drop is even due to simple demographics — more families with kids moving out, and more seniors moving in — in that case you should just shrug and understand population shifts are a natural part of governance.

For all these other reasons, the spectre of a smaller class of 2019 elicits not one iota of sanctimonious frothing and metaphorical hand-wringing. Why? Because you’ve accepted with all your heart something that makes no sense — it matters not that their classmates left, but the destination of those fleeing classmates that somehow steers the fates of those who stayed put.

Get this — even if you’re in a terribly over-crowded school district, like this one in Kentucky, you still can’t support school choice options as a solution to horribly bulging enrollment. You’ve got to fear school choice might take kids away from a district school even while crying that there are too many kids in that same district school. Tricky, eh? That’s why you can look around Kentucky all you want; you won’t find even a single charter school anywhere in the state.

school__choiceAnd there’s something else. After you’ve convinced your friends and neighbors that decreasing school enrollment because of school choice has been awful for the kids with the misfortune to remain in the student-depleted district school, you’ve now got to become the biggest champion of these same half-empty schools if anyone proposes that they be consolidated, like here, here and here. Picture this: You’ve got your “Schools Need Economies of Scale!” poster that you fly during the charter and voucher debates, stored right next to your “Small Schools Rock!” poster that you unfurl when the district starts talking consolidation. Getting dizzy? You’ve also got to dismiss the importance of campus proximity to a family when a new charter or voucher school is discussed, then make a switcheroo to cry about the imperative of proximity once someone mentions closing half-empty district schools.

It’s true that some costs in education are what an engineer would call “quantized.” These are costs that, for example, don’t increase with each additional student, but could increase with, say, each 25th new student. Hiring a new teacher would be like that. School choice opponents correctly point out that if a school loses five 3rd graders to school choice, they’ll lose the funding for those tots, but won’t be able to compensate by eliminating a whole teaching position.

What they strategically redact are mentions of the cases where a school currently has too many kids for its current staff size. Their fuzzy math presupposes that enrollment/staff rations are at some kind of optimized level right now, but also magically optimized next year and somehow also the year after that, despite the continuous fluctuations. They need you to believe that school choice would throw this current utopian staff/student balance off kilter, while pretending the other things that make it fluctuate aren’t also happening every year.

And instead of competition making things better, they need you to believe that monopoly is a better driver of quality. Good one, eh?

What’s the point of all this inexplicable pretzel logic? Of course, it’s all about protecting jobs at the school district. But while polls like the Just Facts one show most people are still ill-informed, take heart. The National School Choice Week movement keeps growing every year, and the convoluted rationalizations for one-size-fits-all schools are becoming more transparent.

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