Why I support school choice

Graduation by Larry St. Pierre / Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • What choice does is establish the conditions under which change can happen. #SCW.

    Tweet This

  • School choice puts the power in the hands of students & their families, not in politicians or bureaucrats.

    Tweet This

  • Most public schools aren't as "public" as you might think...

    Tweet This

  • Before @MQ_McShane moved behind the desk of a DC think tank, he was a #teacher. #SCW.

    Tweet This

  • .@MQ_McShane: How I came to support school choice as a means for transforming the American education system.

    Tweet This

In honor of National School Choice Week, I felt compelled to jot down just a few words about how I came to support school choice as a means for transforming the American education system.

Unlike a lot of folks in the education policy debate, before I moved behind the desk of a DC think tank and started pontificating about education policy, I was a teacher. Specifically, I taught 9th and 10th grade English and religion, coached baseball, tutored students for the ACT, and led retreats at St. Jude Educational Institute on the west side of Montgomery, Alabama. One of the last remaining historically African-American Catholic schools in the South, St. Jude was (and is) committed to offering its students an alternative to Montgomery's notoriously languishing public schools.

For the vast majority of my students, St. Jude was the first private school they had attended. They routinely came to my classroom years behind where they needed to be, often reading at less than a 4th grade level. It was in my classroom in Montgomery that the abject failure of our education system to teach our children of color came into stark relief.

The statistics back me up. According to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, Alabama public schools only graduate 65.4 percent of their African-American Students. Sadly, that still beats 17 states and the District of Columbia. And if you think these problems are clustered in the South, I'd point you to Connecticut's 63.5 percent black graduation rate, Nebraska's 57.6 percent, and Nevada's whopping 46.7 percent. We have got to do better.

My time teaching in the inner city, and specifically at an inner-city Catholic school, taught me three lessons which drove me to support school choice as the mechanism for turning around these terrible statistics.

1. Most public schools aren't as "public" as you might think

Rhetoric around public schools holds that they are open-access, egalitarian institutions that take children from all races, creeds, and backgrounds and bring them together in classrooms to instill in them a shared set of democratic values.

That doesn't happen.

Because the lion's share of our public schools are residentially assigned, and because our neighborhoods are, by and large, segregated, we see racial and socio-economic stratification in our schools. Houses in neighborhoods zoned for better public schools cost more, and therefore people have to pay "tuition" (in the form of a higher mortgage) to get their children into them.

Look at the breakdown by race of the seven public high schools in Montgomery. The only schools that are less than 80 percent African-American are the three academically-selective magnet schools. This tells us that in Montgomery if you want to attend something other than a hyper-segregated school with a less than 52 percent graduation rate you must qualify for a magnet, move to the suburbs, or pay to attend a private school. That is neither right nor fair. School choice, done right, can offer stronger academic alternatives without sacrificing the public mission of schooling.

2. The Blurry Line Between Public and Private Schools

Rather than judging schools by who manages them, we should judge them based on how well they serve the cause of public education. Public education is an idea: it is the belief that we have an obligation to educate the children of our community in the knowledge and skills that they need to be happy and successful adults in our society. Too often we conflate the mechanism (public schools) with the idea, but we don't have to continue making that mistake. By expanding the set of schools available to parents and disentangling their residency from the school their child attends, we can free them to find the school that best meets the needs of their child.

3. Empowering parents puts the right people in charge

Choice is no panacea to the ills of public education. Granting every child in America a voucher or a tuition tax credit scholarship tomorrow would not immediately solve all of the problems of the American public education system. What choice does is establish the conditions under which change can happen. It frees families from an intransigent bureaucracy that has failed to meet their needs for decades. It empowers entrepreneurial school leaders to offer more diverse options than are currently available to students. It puts the power in the hands of students and their families, not in politicians or bureaucrats.

One of St. Jude's claims to fame was its role in the historic Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. King and the marchers camped on St. Jude's grounds the night before they walked to the Capitol, and Dr. King gave his "How long? Not long" speech. His words ring as true today as they did on that March day in 1965: "The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going." The path to a better American education system is long, and the decisions to get us there are difficult, but we must keep going.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Michael Q.

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.