Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk: In California, school choice is sorely lacking

Students at Sacramento Charter High School walk past the Wall of Fame, where pennants represent where students go to college. Ben Boychuk says parents should have many more choices where to send their children.
Students at Sacramento Charter High School walk past the Wall of Fame, where pennants represent where students go to college. Ben Boychuk says parents should have many more choices where to send their children. rpench@sacbee.com

Here’s something to ponder over your morning caffeinated beverage: A great many of us take it for granted that we can walk into a Starbucks and order a coffee drink 87,000 different ways, give or take. What a country!

Yet when it comes to educating our kids, our choices boil down to a neighborhood public school that may or may not be terrible; a public charter school (maybe); online schools (novel and subject to weird regulations); a magnet school (if your child can make the grade); home schooling (if you have the time and patience); or a private or parochial school (if you can afford tuition).

What a disappointment.

Consumers wouldn’t patronize Starbucks for very long if their choices were so limited. But it’s fair to say most Californians are resigned to a handful of often lackluster or impractical options in education, which is far more consequential.

My analogy isn’t perfect. One obvious objection would be that we don’t pay taxes to subsidize coffee shops. Nor do we as a society generally believe that proper caffeination is a prerequisite of good citizenship.

But we do like our choices, right?

Next week is National School Choice Week. Every year since 2011, parents, students, teachers, activists, sympathetic politicians and concerned citizens have attended rallies and events to shine a light on the need for more learning options. This year, more than 11,000 events are scheduled across the country.

For some reason, the weeklong series of events will kick off in Southern California, as it has for the past few years. Why launch a celebration of school choice in the Golden State, of all places?

Perhaps so we can get a better idea of what we’re missing.

Yes, California likes to boast of its public school choices. But every one of these options has serious downsides. And for many families, even public school choice remains more of a concept than a reality.

Consider: California leads the nation with some 1,130 charter schools serving more than 500,000 mostly poor, black and Latino children. Contrary to critics’ claims, charter schools are public schools that receive fewer tax dollars per pupil than do traditional public schools.

Trouble is the demand for charter school places far outstrips the supply. Most families must participate in an enrollment lottery, and many lose out. According to the California Charter Schools Association, around 49,000 students linger on waiting lists, most stuck in schools that more closely resemble prisons.

And, of course, charters are under constant threat from a Democratic-controlled Legislature in thrall to the California Teachers Association, which can’t stand the fact that many charters aren’t unionized.

If not for Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto pen, charter schools would be burdened with many more rules and regulations with no purpose other than to expedite the failure of an innovative educational experiment.

I could give similar examples of assaults on homeschooling, online learning programs and inter-district transfer programs. The upshot is that California’s school reformers are fighting to maintain hard-won gains while other states are forging ahead with a host of choices.

Twenty-four states offer some form of private school choice – tax-credit scholarships for low-income or disabled children, education savings accounts and tuition rebates and tax deductions for home schoolers and statewide online learning programs.

School choice works. Two dozen peer-reviewed studies of school choice programs in Ohio, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have found students perform better, parents are happier, civic participation increases and taxpayers save money. What’s not to like?

But you can’t so much as whisper “vouchers” in California without somebody crying “witch schools!”

Recall how the CTA helped crush a pair of school voucher initiatives in 1993 and 2000 by claiming the measures would lead to covens of Wiccans opening schools to cash in. What’s a little religious bigotry when union interests are at stake?

In my ideal California, school choice would be universal. The state would fund every child individually, rather than pour billions into bureaucracies. Public schools would be fewer in number, but of much higher quality as they compete for kids. Private, tax-credit scholarship programs would flourish. Teachers unions wouldn’t have nearly the political clout they have now. And if a few kids end up at a Druid elementary school somewhere, the republic won’t collapse.

Ah, but this is just utopian speculation. The truth is choice alone is no panacea – not in a country where educational diversity is being crowded out by Common Core standards.

So we’ll fumble along for the foreseeable future, lamenting another generation of functional illiterates and shrugging our shoulders at the horrid state of our public schools, as if we had no choice. Because we didn’t.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

  Comments