Opinion

A conservative anti-poverty agenda: School choice

Chapter three in a five-part series

(Read the first and second chapter in this five part-series on a conservative anti-poverty agenda here and here.)

How corrupt is the American education system? Oh, let me count the ways...

If the system had been specifically designed to entrench class privilege and inequality, it could hardly have been put together much better than this. Indeed, it's an unspoken-but-open secret that your standing in the American education system is based on how much money you have. This is not only through private schools, but mostly through the public school catchment system, which makes attending the "good" public schools dependent on whether your parents can afford expensive real estate.

In this context, no wonder we hear all about "broken inner-city public schools." The system basically guarantees that they will break and stay broken, since they don't get nearly as much money as schools in fancier neighborhoods.

For decades, conservatives have had a very simple anti-poverty solution to this problem: Give the dollars straight to the kids, and let private and public schools compete for children.

School choice is a powerful idea. It's powerful, first, on grounds of justice: It helps those who need it most. Today there is already school choice — but only for the privileged. There are already "markets in education" — except it's actually the market for real estate. Actual school choice would give the underprivileged the same opportunities that the privileged have today.

But school choice is also a powerful idea on efficiency grounds. Systems that have choice and competition tend to be more innovative than bureaucratized, centrally planned systems. There is no reason why education should be any different.

The best evidence points to the idea that even limited school choice works wonders for poor, and especially minority, kids. As I wrote last month, "Charter schools that cater principally to poor students — and especially those that primarily serve black students — do much, much better than public schools."

Today, the worlds of work, medicine, media, transportation, and more are completely different from what they were in the 19th century. Bafflingly, our classrooms are basically still the same. That is insane. But it is to be expected in a centrally run system. Our children deserve better.

To the left — for reasons that, frankly, have always been incomprehensible to me — giving school choice to poor families is unacceptable. Given how passionate I am about education, and given how stark the contrast is, this has always been a key issue that reminds me of how often liberalism, for all its proclaimed good intentions, really builds a system that entrenches bureaucracies and therefore privilege, and often defeats the very aims that it so earnestly proclaims to serve.

The single best thing we could do to fight poverty would be to make school choice a reality. Even if choice and competition did not mean a much more innovative and vibrant school system, it would still be the right thing to do on justice grounds alone.

When people talk about school choice, they often talk about "school vouchers." But that is not enough.

In the 21st century, what counts as "a school" will change. What's more, the problem with school vouchers is that they might lead to a situation akin to the for-profit higher education sector, made up of companies mostly designed to hoover up government subsidies rather than delivering better education.

Instead, America needs a system in which government money for education goes into K-12 spending accounts that can be spent on a variety of educational initiatives — various schools, apprenticeships, internships, shop class, scouting trips, unschooling, and more. Families and charities could contribute to those accounts as well (crowdfund that semester at MIT for this 12-year-old biology genius!). Children of poor families would get bigger accounts from the government, as would children with disabilities.

Such a measure would completely transform the American education system, in ways we can't even begin to imagine right now. More to the point, it would lift millions of children out of poverty.

(Read the first and second chapter in this five part-series on a conservative anti-poverty agenda here and here.)

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