Parents Search for Alternatives as Public Schooling Withers
The current debate on whether schools should be reopened or not is not just a debate on the safety of children. It should also be a debate on how much freedom we want to give to parents to pick a school best fitted to their children’s needs. The idea of school choice, that parents should have a choice on where to send their children to school, coupled with a voucher program, is paramount in taking back education from the bureaucrats in state capitals and in Washington, DC, which has become dependent upon the approval of the powerful teachers' union.
The covid pandemic has further exasperated the undue influence of the teachers' union on how education is to proceed in the near future. Parents of school-aged children have in most cases few choices when deciding on proper schooling for their kids. A growing trend among concerned parents is homeschooling (see a recent Mises Wire article by Joanna Miller). Homeschooling is the type of individual instruction envisioned by Murray N. Rothbard in Education: Free and Compulsory. Homeschooling may be the answer for some, but many families cannot afford homeschooling or simply feel not comfortable or prepared to homeschool. In the absence of individual instruction, schools developed to alleviate the cost of individual tutoring. The next best alternative option is private schools. Private schools in a free market will develop different types of schools for each type of demand.
Since the pandemic, private schools have seen an increase in applications across the country. However, the economic cost of homeschooling or private schools can be prohibitive. One issue with homeschooling and private schools is the issue of property taxes paid for services not taken. Property taxes have to be paid whether or not children attend the local school and many parents do not have the financial resources to double pay for education. As a consequence of the pandemic, private schools have become more attractive for rich parents across the country in trying to avoid school shutdowns.
The next-best solution is the expansion of school choice. First, school choice or a school voucher program would take back the power from the school administrators and teachers' union by forcing school administrators to have “more skin in the game,” as Hoppe recently pointed out in a Mises Wire article on the lockdown. Currently, teachers’ and school administrators’ salaries are funded through compulsory taxes that are secured in the short and medium term. Relying on compulsory taxes frees schools from the consequences of their actions like closing schools due to the perceived danger of the virus. School funding through property taxes, which, unlike income and sales taxes, vary with the economy, provides school districts with a more recession-proof source of funding. In a pandemic with government shutdowns that cripple the economy with often devastating effects on local public finances, school districts are much more immune to the consequences. This lack of a direct link between school performance and funding does not encourage a responsive educational system. As a result, teachers and school administrators have fewer incentives to open up schools. In addition, public choice theory says that the competition among local government units will limit local government power; however, school districts, and in particular large consolidated school districts, do not have much competition. The previous successful consolidation in effect removed the competition, allowing many school districts monopoly power.
Parents, in turn, may have only one choice, move to another school district that is more favorable, but such a move will come with a steep price in the form of social costs (losing friendships, etc.) and transaction costs (real estate commissions and transfer taxes). In addition, in large urban consolidated school districts the choices of competitive school districts may be relatively small or requiring a further move outside the school district’s boundaries. Nowhere is this more evident than in school districts in large urban centers with a consolidated school district, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, which have resisted the longest in opening schools. Parents should demand an expansion of school choice, which would make school administrators more responsive to the needs of parents and children.
A second advantage of an expansion of school choice is better matching of needs. School choice would allow parents and teachers to be better matched in terms of intelligence, aptitudes, and interests as well as modes of teaching in the current pandemic. Concerned parents and teachers can be matched in a purely online school, while parents and teachers having seen the statistics and reports by the CDC that face-to-face education does not pose a threat will be able to be matched for in-person education. An expansion of school choice would give parents more power to ensure a high level of education that meets their needs. School choice levels the playing field between parents and school administrators and teachers' unions in incentivizing a more student-centered approach to school opening.
In summary, the covid pandemic makes it even clearer that we need more school choice. In the absence of the ability to provide individual instruction and of more private schools, school choice is the second-best option in the current system. In the long run, more private schools would solve the problem, but for now, it is time to take back education and have the ballot of the market determine who have best served the needs of our children.