Does school choice make a difference in academic success? Specifically when implemented in failing districts, is there a fundamental benefit to the option of charter schools? Or do those pesky public school teachers have a point that diverting funding away from existing schools does more harm than good? Does school choice even address the dozens of multi-faceted issues which plague failing districts?

Who cares about the issue of School Choice?
The National Education Association (NEA) is “the teachers” union that has made such a fuss lately – first in response to the notorious Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, then walking out in Chicago, and most protesting the right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Aside from the labor-union battle cry for higher wages and more benefits, the NEA is especially loud and stubborn about their views on the charter school system. A charter school is essentially a school with both private and public funding, run by a private entity – a person, LLC, etc. The concept is supposed to be that privately run schools operate free of some of the market restrictions public schools face – like teachers salaries – and so they can offer higher quality education as a result of participating in the ‘free-market’. Paraphrased, the NEA’s official policy on Charter Schools is:

Charter schools must offer a qualitative improvement upon the existing public school options, cannot have any history as a private school entity, and must be voted upon by the existing public school board. Approved Charter schools must abide by the same labor relations statutes which apply to traditional public schools, and should receive funding (as allocated by the public school board) that does not in any way divert resources away from existing public schools. Charter schools should be more monitored on “a continuing basis” in order to protect “children and the public interest”, and should be closed if any of the above mentioned stipulations are not met.

All of that is to say – the NEA does not particularly like charter schools. Read between the lines – the NEA absolutely supports charter schools, if the proposed school can somehow find it’s own funding without becoming private or for-profit, pay dues to the NEA, and still offer a qualitative improvement for education in the area.

In fairness, its not just the teachers’ union making a fuss – no one is particularly happy with the current relationship between teachers and the rest of the world. The teachers feel under-valued, under-paid, and under-appreciated. Parents feel schools are over-crowded, under-funded, and poorly regulated. Students are generally disgruntled with the whole apparatus – mandatory attendance, irrelevant course-work, rampant bullying, negative peer pressures, and ambivalent teachers. The government (oftentimes) feels the teachers are over-valued, over-paid, and overly impressed with themselves. Bystanders like me feel like all the characters in question are either incapable or uninterested in doing the objective analysis necessary to figure out where the fundamental problems or successes of the current public education system lie.

I won’t address all the different issues the NEA takes up and all the different criticisms that fly back and forth between government, union, and participants, because there are just too many. But the issue of school choice is tantalizing in its ever-circular logic – because even if the under-achieving, disenfranchised students can attend high-achieving schools, will the former students be able to compete academically with the latter? Will there be any kind of detrimental effect on the receiving schools? Does it matter, if somehow equality is achieved, even if it’s achieved at the expense of quality? Will there be a detrimental effect on the schools from which students are transferring, leaving abandoned districts?  Again – do we care? These are all the questions politicians and NEA spokespeople ask and evade. And in all of their non-committal answers and vague research references, it seems that the crux of the issue, like so many things, comes down to money – but not how you might think, because it has nothing to do with teacher’s salaries or school funding.

The single most reliable indicator of a student’s future academic success is still the socio-economic welfare of the student’s family. This is true across the variety of educational systems – private, public, charter, military, home school, etc. On a ntSo how much impact do charter schools or corporate schools really have on the success of the child?  Is school choice really a factor in broadly defined ‘success’ or is it more relevant for incremental success?  For example – does it really take a student who reads below grade level and allow him to sit for the SAT and score competitively with his peers? Or does it take the C- students and make him a B- student instead? Probably both, to an extent. Students who attend fully failing schools will obviously be exposed to fewer rigorous academic opportunities than those students who attend highly functional and achieving schools, and so there could be the opportunity for both far-reaching and incremental success. However, even students who attend high-achieving schools do relatively worse within that construct when they come from socially or economically imbalanced homes.

So here’s my slightly radical opinion: Unless we are going to extract students from their indicator environments (the socio-economically unstable homes) and transplant them into controlled environments (such as boarding schools), school choice is not going to dramatically improve the educational crisis. The effect of school choice is more an incremental improvement, and so we should stop trying to use it as a means to completely re-vamp failing schools. Instead of offering charter schools in failing districts, we would probably be better served to open charter schools, and create school choice in moderately achieving districts, and use Charter schools as a preventative, rather than a remedial, measure. But remember, it’s just my opinion so take it for what it’s worth.