It’s National School Choice Week, and thousands of events all over the country are celebrating parents’ rights to select different educational options for their children. Unfortunately, New Jersey lags most other states when it comes to school choice.
The Garden State has fewer than 100 charter schools versus about 2,500 traditional public schools, and the few charters we do have are clustered in just a handful of urban areas like Newark, Paterson and Jersey City. What’s more, most of the charter schools are oversubscribed, and they’re forced to hold random lotteries to accept new students from their long waiting lists. While there’s also an inter-district public school choice program in New Jersey, it’s underfunded, and the vast majority of school districts choose not to participate.
This leaves New Jersey with a school choice footprint that more resembles tokenism than a statewide policy of respecting parents’ decisions. It’s also why the Center for Education Reform gave New Jersey a dismal state ranking of #30 in their Parent Power Index of 2017. In short, apart from a few cities in the state, New Jersey has mostly been prioritizing dues for unions, job protections for adults and campaign contributions for politicians over the choices of individual parents.
The most commonly heard argument against school choice in New Jersey is that we don’t need more choices because our students already perform better on standardized tests than the national average. But what does that really mean in an increasingly global economy? The international PISA test is given to 15-year-olds in over 70 countries every three years. In the most recent results, U.S. students’ math scores fell from 28th in the world to 35th. I could cite similar language and science scores, but the idea is the same — a high state rank amid a dreadful national rank isn’t much of a boast.
The larger point, however, is that school choice isn’t about calculating broad statistical averages of our one-size-fits-all institutions. It’s about the individual special needs child who isn’t being well-served in a public school. It’s about the gifted child who might thrive in a specialized school for science and math, performing arts or foreign language immersion, but has no access to one. It’s about the child who’s been viciously bullied, sexually assaulted or addicted to drugs, and whose parents’ pleas at school board meetings have fallen on deaf ears. Denying those parents’ wishes without any insight into their lives is simple condescension, and one often rooted in ugly classism.
School choice opponents will also tell you the movement is based on some kind of Dickensian greed of nefarious, underworld privatizers, squirming with giddiness at the prospect of cartoon riches. But just ask them why literally millions of parents, and more every single year, are voting with their feet for more school choice. These parents don’t make a single penny based on their alternative school choices. Opponents of our movement, who at other times cloak themselves in self-righteous defending-the-little-guy valor, will suddenly pivot to the disparaging of these very same little-guy parents as being too stupid or too uninformed to know what’s best for their own children. “They would all suckered by slick school marketing, but we still respect them on parent-teacher night.” Right.
In fact, it’s the teachers unions and their chosen politicians who stand to lose money if parents aren’t happy with the local district. Soak in the irony for a moment: They protect their own union dues cash while feigning revulsion over greed — all the while quietly ignoring that school choice is driven by parents who have absolutely no economic interest in their school choice decisions.
Adding to the irony, many for-profit companies have been in bed with traditional school districts for years, like for-profit providers of say, textbooks, computers, paper, copiers, cafeteria food, uniforms, sports equipment, desks, playground equipment, tables, band instruments, buildings, school buses, heating systems, insurance services, legal services…. Do I need to go on? For some strange reason, all these other billions of for-profit dollars in education seem to be perfectly fine — it’s only the for-profit dollars removed from the bureaucrats’ control that allegedly, suddenly, inject rapacious greed.
And finally, opponents will tell you that school choice hurts the traditional public schools because it drains money from their coffers when families opt out. In fact, school districts have re-sized themselves due to enrollment shifts during their entire existence. The number of households with children versus single adults or empty nesters shift, towns become more populous or less populous, districts can even lose students to new county-run magnet schools. All this is normal, and districts always revise their budgets to reflect the changing enrollments. School choice opponents need to convince you just the enrollment shifts due to school choice would destroy their district, even though all these other kinds of enrollment shifts magically don’t.
Consider that New Jersey runs public schools of all sizes across the state. When your local district implies that its enrollment at this snapshot in time is some kind of ideal, utopian student/staff/fixed cost balance — a balance that would be tragically destroyed by school choice — ask them how the smaller district down the road can possibly manage. Ask your local administrators why they wouldn’t be able to adjust their costs downward to run efficiently with fewer students, when that district down the road seems to run quite happily with that same lower, so-called “inefficient” number of students right now. (Funny how the district down the road with the smaller enrollment isn’t clamoring for a merger, isn’t it? Guess that lower enrollment figure doesn’t seem so inefficient to them.)
And if they believed the “enrollment changes introduce inefficiency” argument, they’d have to support new school choice programs for districts with expanding student populations, wouldn’t they? You know, when students are spilling out into trailers for lack of classroom space? Do you hear school choice praised in those situations as a growing pains solution? Of course not, which betrays the intellectual inconsistency. What you hear is that small districts are great because of local control, but when they get bigger that’s great too because of economies of scale, even if kids are in trailers. In other words, they’ll claim whether enrollments are growing or shrinking, families having a different choice of schools (that the bureaucrats don’t control) is always terrible economics for the local district.
While the education establishment in New Jersey tells you that more school choice, i.e. less power for them, would be a disaster, they’re hoping you never travel to other states. The nation has double the percentage charter school enrollment that we do in New Jersey. Most states have private school choice programs; we do not. These programs are not only popular and growing virtually everywhere, they’ve made the traditional public schools better. School choice is no longer a new idea, and parents like it. So if school choice would be so bad here, why are more parents signing up every year elsewhere?
The concept of choice is not new, even here. New Jerseyans can already decide the doctors and hospitals of their choice with Medicare or Medicaid funding, (including religious hospitals, with don’t seem to engender many church and state separation anxieties). Families receiving Section 8 housing vouchers aren’t told where to live — they get to choose which private apartments to take that government money. Even in education, government Pell grants can be used at both public and private universities, and the idea of limiting a student to the closest public university to use his/her Pell grant would seem patently absurd to most. And yet in this one area, K-12 education, we’re told that one size does, in fact, fit all.
Many of New Jersey’s public school teachers are dedicated professionals who work hard every day in an important and challenging job. Supporting School Choice doesn’t disrespect them any more than supporting doctor choice disrespects any particular physician, or supporting college choice disrespects any particular professor. It just means that while I should decide what’s best for me, I shouldn’t decide what’s best for you.
This piece was originally published by the Asbury Park Press, Gannett Newspaper of New Jersey, on January 24, 2018.