Why does public education fear school choice?

Over 90% of today’s school-age children attend public schools, with the remaining going to private schools and home education programs. But, heaven forbid, a person speaks up about a bad experience with the public schools or why they chose an alternative for their children.

I attended a multi-day liberty-oriented event this summer where many attendees are supportive of home education and school choice. We had multiple conversations about New Hampshire’s Education Tax Credit Scholarship program, numerous charter schools, active homeschool community, and abundant educational resources. Those less familiar with home education asked specific questions, often about how families select curriculum or comply with state regulations. They wondered how parents know their children are learning, what type of assessments are required, and asked the tired socialization questions.

As conversations continued, those with the compliance questions turned out to be the tag-along spouses and public-school teachers in the group.

This is not a unique experience. Even in our statewide homeschool support group, we have former public-school teachers who now home educate their own children. This past spring there was a post where a mom commented about her personal bad experience with her local public-school officials and referred to them as “ignorant” of homeschooling. I received a private message from a former teacher asking that the comment be removed because it was insulting to public-school professionals. While not all public-school personnel are against homeschooling, it is more than fair for an individual to share their personal experience and opinions. I also find that many, if not most, public-school officials are unfamiliar with home education and skeptical about school choice. They often judge all homeschoolers by the one who may return to their local school behind in one or more academic areas, or worse, by the myths propagated by their unions. Do public school officials make those same judgments when a student transfers from a different public school?

Many years ago when we withdrew our oldest child from a private school, we faced harsh rebuke from family and friends, all questioning whether we were prepared to take on the responsibility and if we could handle the academic demands of teaching elementary school education. Our son was entering fourth grade at the time. Friends took our choice as a personal criticism. They somehow thought that our son’s need for an alternative was a judgement of their choice, even though our two younger children were still enrolled in the school.

While some public-school teachers fear educational options will decrease available jobs, they often overlook the benefits. They are able to teach in more diverse educational environments where their skills and expertise are not confined by federal regulations. It also leads to higher salaries. Education options are booming with the explosive growth of online learning and recognition that students can learn outside the four walls of a traditional classroom. Education is becoming a buffet of options from which students can select what fits them best, and teachers can benefit from those opportunities, too.

Ironically, public-school teachers are twice as likely than the general population to enroll their own children in schools of choice instead of local district institutions. But, shush. Don’t talk about these facts.

More obviously, these school-choice opponents ignore the needs of individual children, those who are compelled to leave public education. The most common reasons families seek educational options are because of academic fit and safety concerns.

They may grudgingly acknowledge that life is not one-size-fits-all, but bristle when applying this rationale to education. It is logical to state that public schools — even good schools — cannot accommodate all children, but parents get flack for enrolling their children in a school of choice instead of the local public institution.

Anyone who has children in their lives knows that they are unique individuals and they do not learn the same things at the same time. Some children learn to walk before their first birthdays and some a little after; some learn to tie their shoes some time in Kindergarten, while others learn in preschool or 1st grade. It is broadly accepted that kids learn these skills at different rates, yet school-choice doubters become entrenched when it comes to learning to read, memorizing multiplication tables, or mastering other academic skills.

It is broadly presumed that public-school students are on the same academic level across all subjects for any given grade level because most students march from grade to grade with their peers all the way from Kindergarten through 12th grade. In reality, even in public schools Little Johnny may be ahead of his classmates in reading while needing more time to learn fractions. Yet if a homeschooled child is a little behind the age-assigned grade level in any subject, it is considered a failing.

This is ignorant of facts when we look at New Hampshire’s 2019 statewide assessment results. According to the NH Department of Education, 56% of students are proficient or better in English, 47% are proficient or better in math, and only 39% in science; yet over 90% of NH’s public-school students graduate. This means that we award diplomas to students who are not proficient in core academic areas. Keep in mind that the NH DOE defines proficient as those students who “demonstrate minor gaps in the perquisite knowledge and skills needed to perform successfully in instructional activities at the current grade level.” But don’t mention these scores to public-school officials and families because they are compelled to apologize these facts away in defense of their beloved local schools and teachers.

Safety is another major reason families consider education alternatives for their children. Bullying, drug abuse, and other negative societal problems are not unique to public schools, but it is reasonable that parents want to minimize their children’s exposure to these problems.

New Hampshire is not immune to these difficulties and we have periodically written about it. Stories frequently appear in the news; here and here are recent examples. Families generally don’t know that officials are not required to notify them when crimes happen at schools. Children cannot learn to their best ability when they are subjected to repeated bullying, harassment, and assigned to a school that has a “fight club” environment.

State statutes also make it very difficult to find relief. NH has a law commonly referred to as Manifest Educational Hardship. It is supposed to provide alternatives at the local school’s expense when enrolled students’ needs are not met. According to the NH Department of Education, only one family has successfully petitioned the state Board of Education in a 16-year period when their local school boards denied their requests for relief. Changes to the MEH law were proposed in 2018 and 2019 that would explicitly help those children who face chronic severe problems in their local schools, yet the legislature failed to support these at-risk students. In public hearings on these bills, school administrators and union organizations argued about the costs; not one mentioned the needs of students.

Recently, Commissioner Frank Edelblut tweeted “We need to stop looking for a way to educate ALL students, and instead look for ways to educate EVERY student. Same goal, many paths.” If we care about children, not buildings, this must be our priority.

It’s time to set unfounded fears aside and put children first in education. It’s time to support and empower families with more educational opportunities and not apologize for choosing options that best fit children’s needs. It’s time to support school choice.