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A small history lesson for National School Week 2014

January 28, 2014

National School Choice Week 2014

It is now day 3 of National School Choice Week 2014, which runs this year from Jan 26 to Feb 1. School Choice weeks allows the benefits of various sources of education to be highlighted. Last year I did a post with definitions of many types of school choice and looked closer at open enrollment. For today I thought I would pass on a brief history lesson from Andrew Coulson on the CATO website. Here is an excerpt from Andrew’s post titled “Is School Choice Worth Celebrating? A Look at the Evidence“.

As I wrote in Market Education, The Unknown History, the education market of classical Athens, in the 5th century BC, was the first time and place on Earth in which education reached beyond a tiny ruling elite. There was no government participation in education. Teachers competed in the town square to attract paying customers, families called the shots, and the city ended up building a thriving economy and the highest literacy rate in the ancient world. During their heyday, the Athenians invented democracy, most forms of Western literature, and some pretty enduring art and philosophy. Simultaneously, 100 miles away, Sparta established a highly organized system of public boarding schools. It’s legacy? One decent action movie and a name for high school football teams.

Over the next 2,500 years, markets continued to outshine state-run school systems in their ability to serve the needs of families, and they also reduced the social tensions created by state schooling. Near-universal literacy and elementary enrollment among the free population were achieved in the United States by the mid-19th century—before the rise of state school systems—chiefly through private and home schools financed by a combination of parent fees and philanthropy. Even the semi-public “district” schools of the early 19th century charged most parents fees, reserving free and subsidized places for the poor.

The whole post is worth reading. I think it is important to remember this brief history lesson when talking about school choice. Often when I debate public education I will hear claims such as “but if the government doesn’t run education it won’t be widely available”. But that premises doesn’t look at the actual history of education. Public education for all is a fairly new concept in human history. It is well intended and has been the only choice for many children. But should it be the only choice? If public schools are not competing for students can we be sure they are providing the best service possible?

To me school choice is not about getting rid of public schools. Rather it is about allowing parents to choose the education model that best fits their children. Does school choice mean different kids would would have different outcomes? Yes!. That is OK! Such variance of outcomes will force lower quality schools (even public schools) to compete and improve their education approaches. Instead of heading the direction of centralized outcome-based education (Common Core), the country should be finding ways to expand various school choice options and encouraging new innovative ways to education our children.

I will end this post by reprinting my conclusion from a Common Core post I wrote a couple months ago. Common Core is the topic of that post, but it applies in the school choice discussion as well.

If those advocating Common Core want to debate the best ways to teach our children I would welcome that discussion. However those involved in the discussion would have to keep an open mind and consider that centralized education standards for the whole country may not be the best path forward. At the same time all involved in the discussion have to realize there is likely no single answer to fixing education in America. Instead there will likely be many answers that vary from region to region. That is OK! There are very few (if any)  societal issues that can be fixed with any single answer. Now it is time to end Common Core and truly have the discussion of what to do with public education in the future.

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