Column: School Choice Respects Parents and Would Help Children

For the Valley News
Thursday, May 25, 2017

Steve Nelson concluded his April 28 column with this remarkable statement about the school choice movement: “If we lose public education to this religious, anti-science, profit-driven movement, we will never get it back.”

It is remarkable because I think it reveals what Nelson (a resident of New York and Vermont) thinks of New Hampshire parents: They are too religious and too uneducated to be trusted with decisions about how to best educate their own children. He is painting with a brush as broad, and as flawed, as the one President Barack Obama used when he complained about bitter small-town people in Pennsylvania clinging to guns and religion.

Not only does he overgeneralize, but he makes some assertions that fail basic fact checks. To name one, early in his article, Nelson claims that President Donald Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos have begun “dismantling any substantial federal role in education,” and have “signaled a rapid and full abandonment of a commitment to equitable public education for all.” He seems to be echoing the analysis of several mainstream news organizations, which list specific programs that would be ended, including after-school and summer programs, child nutrition programs, and class-size reduction programs, all based on the president’s April 16 executive order.

As a researcher, I’m used to checking original sources, so I looked at the actual text of the President Trump’s executive order on education. I encourage readers to do the same. It simply states that the education secretary will rescind or revise any regulations or guidance documents that are inconsistent with the law.

In other words, it says: If there are things we are not supposed to be doing, we will stop doing them. President Trump appears to believe that the Department of Education should limit its efforts to exercising powers enumerated in the Constitution and implemented in statutes. But Nelson, and the news organizations he parrots, seems to believe that the department should do whatever it thinks might help some student, or perhaps some teacher’s union, somewhere, regardless of the law.

In particular, the list of enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution does not authorize any federal role (substantial or not) in education (public, private, equitable or otherwise). People like Nelson, who see this as a shortcoming, should take a look at Article V, which describes the processes by which the Constitution can be amended.

President Trump’s stated purpose for the order is to “restore the proper division of power under the Constitution between the Federal Government and the States” and to ensure that federal regulations “do not obstruct the ability of states, local governments, teachers and most importantly, parents, to make the best decisions for their students and, in many cases, for their children” — even if they cling to views about religion, or science, that differ from those held by Nelson.

As a second example, Nelson claims that rich families are in the best position to use school choice vouchers to flee public schools for expensive private schools. But, in fact, all existing state voucher programs have means tests that allow only students from low- or middle-income families to receive vouchers.

And while he is correct that vouchers will not cover the full costs of expensive private schools, he does not appear to realize that not all private schools are expensive. For example, the Montessori school near Croydon offers a superior education for about half the cost of the nearby public schools. Nor does he realize that many expensive private schools offer scholarships to low-income students. Also, one of the lessons of charter schools — like the Academy of Science and Design in Nashua, recently named one of the best high schools in the nation — is that a first-rate education does not require the kind of spending that we see in public schools.

Similarly, the Educational Savings Account programs that have been implemented so far include restrictions to prevent the kinds of abuses that Nelson seems to fear, although they do not include specific means tests. But perhaps this is something that Nelson and I can agree on: Poor people should not subsidize rich people. Period.

One fact that Nelson does get right is that if children leave inadequate public schools, those schools will lose some of their funding. That sounds bad, but consider the same argument stated in a different way: We should prevent children from leaving failing schools because those schools need the money. In this view, children exist for the sake of public schools, rather than public schools existing for the sake of children.

In the end, Nelson’s argument can be reduced to this: School choice may lead to some bad outcomes for some people, so we must resist it. The competing argument is that school choice will certainly create some wonderful outcomes for some people, so we should pursue it. Viewed this way, the debate over school choice is about whether we will choose to focus on fear or hope — that is, on what might go wrong, or on what will go right. It is about whether we will let fear compel us to cling to models of schooling from the 19th century, or whether hope will spur us to embrace the chance to let education move forward into the 21st century. Personally, I believe that John F. Kennedy was wise to counsel that “we should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.”

Jody Underwood is vice chair of the Croydon School Board, an educational researcher and an Education Fellow for the Granite Institute.