School choice means more freedom

Published 9:42 pm Wednesday, August 20, 2014

By Clay Scott

I’ve been a school choice advocate for many years, but I recently concluded that school choice is not really what is needed to fix our education system.

Virginia has a reputation as one the worst states when it comes to school choice. It is true that parents have few choices in Virginia, but the truth is that we always have the ability to choose. This is what is meant by the “unalienable right” of liberty. Even if the government, or any other influencer, wanted to remove that right, it could not be done.

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We can and do make choices regarding education. Parents homeschool or send their children to private academies. Furthermore, education in its complete sense is done far more extensively outside of schools. Schools see to the academics, but are gradually recusing themselves of participation in all other components of a complete education. Nevertheless, individual teachers and administrators make choices to support parents by modeling the values they strive to teach their children at home.

If we feel restricted, it is only because the central authority has engaged in a long train of abuses and usurpations designed to reduce us under absolute despotism. (If you missed that allusion, it’s from a document rarely read before high school, if at all.) When people call for more “school choice” they are really asking for more freedom in education.

Another reason school choice is not enough is that the issue is not all about parents choosing their children’s schools. It is also about allowing schools to become their best selves.

In the school choice discussion, the government retains the power, yielding just one of many education choices to parents. By contrast, “freedom in education” is the natural occurrence of individual citizens exercising their God-given power to act freely without government obstruction.

Virginia has charter school laws. We have had them for quite some time now. And yet we watch idly as our neighbors to the south rise to national prominence in charter education, while we remain perfectly content to add a few schools in Norfolk and Virginia Beach that amount to nothing more than magnet schools from the 1980s.

True freedom in education starts with one thing: a narrow, specific declaration of the state’s interest in education. I am not aware of such a statement in any of the 50 states. It then adds an accreditation system for verifying that institutions are meeting that interest. The last part is sufficient funding to provide each student in the state with an appropriate education. That is all that is required to have a highly effective education system.

This ideal structure may not be in the near future. We have some deeply ingrained assumptions about education, schools, and sound public school policy. This is one realm that has clearly not learned that “less is more.”

What we can do, however, is use the right language. Owning the terms of discourse is oftentimes halfway to victory. Let’s quit talking about school choice and start talking about freedom in education.

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at