Merrifield: School choice essential element in learning

by John Merrifield

Source: Austin American Statesman

University of Texas at San Antonio, National Center for Policy Analysis Senior Fellow

Texas public schools, and schools nationwide, cannot engage a high percentage of children in useful learning. That fact has survived frenzied efforts to improve materials, teachers and a variety of other factors.

Children are too diverse in terms of which instructional approaches and which subject themes will achieve the needed engagement in the learning process for any approach to achieve even acceptable rates of success, with children mostly sorted into schools by attendance zone and into classrooms only by age.

The public school system tries to address student diversity by creating options within large, mall-like campuses. That has achieved unmanageable school goliaths and student alienation, but not improved performance. Efforts to make that approach to student diversity produce acceptable outcomes will continue, but the evidence is overwhelming in volume and urgency that policymaking needs to pursue engagement of diverse children in other ways.

Our non-ideological premise is that an alternative to the present public policy strategy of different options in schools is “school choice,” including choices developed through the entrepreneurial initiative that drives most of our economy.

Let’s take this example to see how that would work, and why. Suppose that Mom and Dad gradually take notice of their son’s excitement and riveted attention during the sports news, and utter disengagement with the rest of the news. Their son is just doing OK in his assigned public school that targets content and examples to average children.

Dad wonders: If only his son was in a classroom (or online setting) that taught math through sports stats, and taught reading and writing through sports stories. It occurs to dad that there are probably a lot of kids like his son. If Dad is an entrepreneur, he might convert his idea into a school of choice, which could be highly successful as a chartered public school, or as a private school if vouchers or tax credits are available to defray the tuition cost.

Private schools are rare now and mostly church-run because it is very difficult to sell schooling when it is available from the government for no additional charge beyond taxes you must pay.

The sports-stories-themed school must be a school of choice. You cannot assign children to specialized instructional approaches. The sports-stories-themed school is financially feasible if the school can recruit enough children (be their best choice) so that the combination of per pupil public funding and private funding, either from charity or family tuition co-payment, is sufficient to finance the delivery of the promised curriculum.

Suppose, as a result of talented teachers that love to use sports stories to teach general things like the three Rs, and a great location for the school, Dad can charge tuition way above the cost of delivering the instruction, and as an entrepreneur he charges “what the market will bear.” Dad’s profit is a short-term reward for his risk and wisdom, and a magnet for increased investment and competition that will force the tuition price of sports-stories-themed schooling down to the cost achievable by the most efficient schools.

That process of profit-loss and price change is what would determine the public-private mix of diverse schooling options on a “playing field” leveled by tuition tax credits or tuition vouchers like what we’ve proposed.

The NCPA study, “Private School Choice: Options for Texas Children,” plus continued work on this critical policy entrepreneurship arena addresses the many issues and critical details we could not get into here.