The Idaho School Boards Association, or ISBA, is set to vote on a resolution opposing school choice. The resolution perpetuates several myths commonly used to defend the government monopoly. Member school districts will vote on the resolution as part of ISBA’s annual convention on Nov. 11.
This is not the first time that ISBA has shown its cards. One of its representatives testified against HB 669, a bill that would have empowered 65% of Idaho families to use part of their student’s public education funding for a customized education. ISBA also opposed an early iteration of the Strong Students grant program that would have helped families offset some of the costs of private schools.
Adopting this resolution would cement ISBA’s position of protecting the public school monopoly over the needs and desires of Idaho families who support programs like education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships.
Myth 1: School choice would destroy public district and charter schools, especially those in rural areas.
ISBA’s proposed resolution argues that private school choice would “cause irreparable harm” to public schools, particularly in rural areas. But the goal of education policy should be to provide the best possible education, not prop up any particular institution.
Even so, school choice doesn’t defund public schools. When a student leaves a public school using a school choice scholarship, the district retains a portion of the funding meant to educate that student. As a result, a public school’s per-pupil funding increases as the school keeps money for students it is no longer educating. Imagine if Albertsons could keep a portion of a family’s grocery budget after the family chose to leave and shop at WinCo. That would be a great deal for Albertsons, and it’s the same deal public schools receive under a school choice program.
The fear that competition kills public schools is unfounded. Competition doesn’t kill public schools; it improves them. Over two dozen studies have found that competition resulting from school choice programs improved academic outcomes in public schools.
Furthermore, the experiences of other states show that school choice would not destroy the public school system in rural Idaho. Public schools still operate in states that offer private school choice yet have significant rural populations, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and West Virginia.
Rural communities have significant incentives to respond to school choice. It’s no secret that a one-size-fits-all education system doesn’t work for every student. In rural communities where students’ only brick-and-mortar option is to attend their assigned district school, families whose children are being left behind in government schools need and deserve other options.
Even if some rural areas might be unable to support a charter or private school, families could benefit from school choice scholarships by participating in options like micro-schools or pods, homeschooling, homesteading, online education, and more.
For example, in rural Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the Feuerstein family benefits from homeschooling. Through “a mixture of life schooling, classical literature, and a lot of self-led discovery,” their children learn a variety of skills that they could not otherwise learn in the public school system.
Rural students, just like students in more heavily populated areas, deserve the chance to access educational options that fit their unique needs and goals.
Myth 2: Private and parochial schools are unaccountable.
ISBA’s draft resolution claims that private school choice would give money to “unaccountable private and parochial schools.”
Private schools are subject to the highest form of accountability: parents. Parents know and love their children better than anyone else. If they are unhappy with the education their children are receiving, they can withdraw them and enroll them somewhere else. Therefore, private schools must provide a high-quality education, or they risk losing their clientele.
Meanwhile, public schools are not, in practice, accountable to parents. While private schools struggled to return to in-person instruction during the pandemic, public schools, at the behest of teachers unions, remained closed. This showed how mandatory bargaining laws force public schools to acquiesce to teachers unions and their demands over the needs of families and students.
Public schools also suffer from a lack of democratic and educational accountability.
Opponents of educational freedom sometimes say that public schools are held accountable by elections. But public schools are not democratically accountable, because school board elections are held off-cycle, which means that they take place on a date different from other elections. Voters aren’t selecting school board trustees at the same time as other statewide and national offices, so fewer voters show up at the polls. Low voter turnout means that school boards do not reflect the values of the overall community but only those few who show up to vote, namely, teachers union members and other special interest groups.
Public schools are not accountable for their academic record, either, because they don’t receive negative consequences for low student achievement. Student test scores have remained stagnant or declined for years, yet lawmakers continue to increase spending on public schools by significant amounts. Recent SAT results show that student scores in math, reading, and writing have been declining since at least 2016. Idaho’s results for the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show declines from 2019. Even though Idaho has greatly increased the amount spent to boost student literacy, results have not improved.
Contrary to ISBA’s beliefs, accountability begins with parents, not government bureaucrats.
Myth 3: Idaho students and families have sufficient choice within the existing public school system.
ISBA’s resolution asserts that Idaho families have sufficient choices within the public school monopoly and that parents who have the financial means can send their children to a private school.
ISBA only supports choices that trap families within the existing monopoly system. As a public school membership organization, ISBA has strong incentives to resist any competition diminishing their control over the system.
Families disagree with ISBA and have been demanding more education choices. Recent polling indicates that 70% of school parents support vouchers, while 75% support ESAs. During the 2022 regular legislative session, many parents and grandparents testified in favor of the proposed Hope and Opportunity Scholarship program, which would have allowed money to follow children to an education environment better suited to their needs.
Forms of public school choice like charter and magnet schools are a step in the right direction. But these choices exist only in the current monopoly system. This isn’t a good fit for every family. Families should not be forced to stay in a system that doesn’t align with their needs and values.
Middle- and upper-class families might be able to afford alternative educational options in the private sector, but access to an excellent education should be available to every family, regardless of income.
After all, the money allocated for each student’s education doesn’t belong to schools; it’s meant for the purpose of educating students, and families should be able to choose the educational environment that works best for them.
Myth 4: School choice harms student academic achievement.
ISBA’s resolution also claims that “in other areas of the country that have adopted voucher programs, student achievement has suffered, especially among those children receiving vouchers.” The claim ignores the demonstrated track record of success for students who participate in school choice programs, as well as the academic improvement observed in both public school students and scholarship recipients when competition among schools is fostered.
Of the 28 studies looking at the effects of school choice programs on public school students’ test scores, 25 found a positive effect. Only one study found no visible effect, and just two identified a negative effect.
Not only can school choice improve the performance of students in public schools, but it also benefits students who participate in choice programs. Out of 17 studies that examined whether students who participated in a school choice program achieved higher test scores than students who did not participate, 11 found that this was the case, while only four were unable to find a discernible difference, and three found that voucher participants scored lower than public school students. Studies also suggest that students’ scores improve the longer they participate in the school choice program.
Furthermore, school choice benefits participants in other ways. For instance, multiple studies have discovered that “voucher and tax-credit scholarship students are more likely to graduate, enroll in college and persist in college than their public school peers.”
Students are suffering from declining or stagnating academic performance in the existing system, but school choice promises to improve academic performance for all students.
Given ISBA’s track record of opposing school choice programs like Hope and Opportunity Scholarships, the draft resolution appears likely to pass. Idaho’s students and families deserve the freedom to choose an education suited to their unique needs. Policymakers who care about providing the best education for every student in Idaho should take ISBA’s recommendations with a grain of salt and put the needs of students ahead of the system.