Comment: School choice can rouse public schools from complacency

A lack of concern from educators about learning loss should have parents demanding school choice.

By Donald Kimball / For The Herald

If you went to a grocery store and bought a carton of eggs, only to find half were rotten, you probably wouldn’t shop at that store anymore. Similarly, if you signed up for a gym membership and then learned they were closed nine months of the year, you’d cancel that membership.

Unfortunately, K-12 schools don’t cater to consumer demand.

When the public schools shut down during the covid pandemic, many parents had no recourse or ability to leave a system that was no longer serving their children. It is for this very reason the school choice movement has been catching fire across the rest of the nation. As Washington families gear up to return to school this year, parents are keenly aware of what they’re missing.

The public education system in Washington needs a wakeup call. The pandemic only exacerbated the system’s unresponsiveness to the needs of students, and parents across the state are seeing the fruits of this neglect. It’s time to bring the school choice movement to the Evergreen State.

Washington state was one of the last in the nation to reopen public schools. Liv Finne, Director of Education for the Washington Policy Center, has reported on the results, finding testing from last year showing public schools failed to adequately educate 62 percent of students in math and 49 percent in English. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s reports from last year found that 40 percent of K-4 students were not reading at their current grade level. Washington’s trending declines stand in stark contrast to the results of private schools which opened much earlier with no health repercussions.

In response to these realities, Washington parents have had to get creative to find the best choice for their children. Reports by the state board of education show a 25 percent increase in private education enrollment and a 42 percent increase in homeschool participation since the 2019-20 school year.

School officials seem unfazed by this mass exodus from the public school system. Rather than looking for innovative solutions or reflecting on the mistakes of shutting down, they have tried to shift the blame, claiming Washington’s education spending was “on the decline” (even though per student spending has increased), seeking to cancel testing and assessment in order to cover up their lack of progress, and most recently publishing an article that included a statement by an Issaquah middle school counselor that, “[students] are not behind. They gained a lot during that time — it just wasn’t what we traditionally would have taught.”

These are not the actions of a system intent on addressing the real needs of students. Parents who have the means are leaving the system for better alternatives, but the economic realities of the current day make this a difficult prospect for many families; particularly non-affluent families.

This is what makes the school choice movement so imperative for Washington residents.

Programs adopted in other states give families who are the most vulnerable to an unresponsive education system the power to move to a school that actually addresses the needs of the students. By creating this opportunity for parents, the public education system now has an external pressure that will force it to reevaluate failing policies and improve itself in order to keep students. In fact, studies have shown states with greater school choice have improved education outcomes from both private and public schools. This is intuitive: If public schools are guaranteed students and an income stream, there is no incentive for them to attract more families with better outcomes and positive changes. School choice promotes a positive competition that will yield better market results.

Many teachers in the education system want the best for their students, but the system itself through public officials and bureaucrats is more intent on shifting blame and doubling down on processes that don’t work. Increased funding to education every year hasn’t stopped declining test results, and outright claims that students “gained a lot” from the shutdowns are a blatant rejection of responsibility for the harms in student learning.

Just imagine if parents could choose where their students returned to school this fall: Public school hallways would be a lot emptier than they’re about to be after the bell rings. This could provide the wake-up call the public education system so desperately needs.

Donald Kimball is a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on X @KimballDonald.

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