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Teaching School Choice to the American Education System

Jason Bedrick joins us to talk about school choice in the United States. What’s wrong with our current public schooling model and how will more choice fix it?

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How can parents have more say in how their children are educated? What’s the difference between different approaches to school choice, like vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits? Do we know these work?

Jason Bedrick joins us this week to make the case for school choice.

Show Notes and Further Reading

Here’s an earlier episode of Free Thoughts with Neal McCluskey on the history of public schooling in America.

Bedrick mentions Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (2016) and his review of the book at the Library of Law and Liberty


Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.

Matthew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney.

Aaron Powell: Joining us today is our colleague, Jason Bedrick. He’s a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Aaron Powell: We’re going to talk about school choice today. But, before we talk about school choice, let’s talk about what it’s responding to or what it’s attempting to solve, which is namely the problem with our current tried and true public educational system that has some problems, but I mean I’m a product of the public schools. I turned out mostly okay. So what’s wrong with the way that we give people education in the country right now?

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, Milton Friedman didn’t invent the idea of a school voucher, but he was certainly the one to popularize and he was the one who made, you know, the strongest early case for it about 50 years ago. And his view was that public institutions are—they don’t have a feedback mechanism, right? Like a market does and so they’re inherently inefficient. He noted that there was a strong case—economically, there was a strong case to have public financing of education because of the spillover effects, right? So, if you have an educated populace, you know, that’s sort of something that we think is necessary for representative government. And if you have an uneducated populace, there’s all sorts of problems not just in terms of civics but also in terms of crime and just low economic output and things like that. So, since there are low-income families that couldn’t afford a quality education for their kids, again, according to Friedman, therefore, there is an economic case for intervening and the government providing the financing.

But his next move was to say, but it does not, therefore, follow that there’s also a case for the government to actually run the system and you’re going to get this in terms of let’s say medicine, right? For all its flaws, Medicare and Medicaid are superior to the county hospital system or, for that matter, the VA system where the government is actually providing the service and you’ve got this long wait lines and veterans are literally dying while they’re waiting to get care. Or, for example, in housing, it’s much better for somebody to have Section 8 Housing Voucher and go out into the market and purchase housing than it was to have these government-run projects which ended up becoming decrepit. Or, you know, in food, much better to have a food stamp where somebody goes and they shop at the same grocery store as everybody else than waiting in line to get, you know, the notoriously inedible government cheese. So, that was essentially Friedman’s case that you would have a much more efficient system if you had multiple options and there is competition among the providers of education.

Matthew Feeney: But I think the question is still—that lingers in my mind is—well, like Aaron, I had a pretty good public school education. Went to high school up in New Jersey and seemed to have served me pretty well. And why can’t the response be—well, why not just mimic what good schools are doing right everywhere else? And, we might have the arguments that, you know, there’s not enough competition but when something works, why not just go with that?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, well, I mean we don’t know that there is this one best way of education. I also for 8 years was in a public school system and I am happy my parents were able to afford to live in a town that had a good public school system, but we see that there’s a large disparity among public schools and that those people who are more low income that can’t afford to live in a community with larger, more expensive houses that has a higher-performing district school or can afford private school tuition end up stuck in communities where their zoned school is not high performing, and so it would be much better for those students to get a voucher or a tax credits scholarship or an education savings account and be able to go out into the market and purchase the same sort of education that people in other communities are more fortunate to be able to afford on their own.

Aaron Powell: Is the difference between, say, the public school that Matthew attended and the public schools that a poor rural community has access to? Is it money? Is that what is causing his school to be better and so we could alternatively pump up funding for education? Or is there something else going on that prevents those public schools from being as good as the ones in Princeton?

Jason Bedrick: Right. There’s definitely something else going on because in many cases, the schools that are lower income are getting more money than some of the higher performing schools. So, for example, in Washington D.C. a few years ago turned out that these schools were getting about $30,000 per pupil per year, which is more than double the national average and yet these schools were, you know, the worst in the nation on the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is sort of—you know, it’s called the nation’s report card. So, if resources automatically determine or if there is a very strong link, let’s say, between resources and outcomes then you would expect the Washington D.C. schools to be far outperforming instead of being in last place when compared to all 50 states. And even internationally, there’s what’s called the PISA which is this international exam. So, if you look at their Math exam, the United States comes in around 30th place out of all the industrialized nations.

But if you were to map out performance on the PISA on one axis and on the other axis you were to look at their spending per pupil, you would find that almost all of the industrialized nations are spending less per pupil and outperform the United States. So, I’m not going to say resources have no role to play, they do, but the evidence suggests that it’s not really resources that are the determining factor.

Aaron Powell: When I hear these cross-country comparisons like the European countries and the Scandinavian countries, you know, that are way outperforming us, are we comparing—so their average—they’re much more homogenous societies than we are and—

Jason Bedrick: Less so than it used to be but, yeah.

Aaron Powell: And we have this much—we have this big spread. And so are we comparing kind of the average to the average? Like how do the parts of the US that socioeconomically look like those countries compare to those countries?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. So, Harvard put together a really nice map where they actually—they broke out all of the states. And, you know, Massachusetts does pretty well. I mean Massachusetts is the state that performs the highest and it’s a rather, you know, homogenous state, lots of colleges there, so lots of professors, you know, that’s probably the most educated, you know, in terms of higher ed state in the nation. They do quite well, but they’re still, you know, like—I forgot the number, but they’re between 10 and 20, you know, they were not close to the top, you know. And Canada is also a large and rather diverse nation. They outperform us as well, so it’s not just this ethnic homogenization. That’s not the defining factor either.

Matthew Feeney: Well, let me play devil’s advocate a little bit because when I see results like this, the international comparisons, the cynic in me thinks but a lot of these countries in western Europe and other developed countries have less school choice than the United States. And someone might say, when you look at the United States, a lot of the motivating factor behind school choice and behind home schooling religious people who are perhaps skeptical of some sort of science, so is there an argument to be made that school choice encourages poor education?

Jason Bedrick: Well, certainly a lot of those countries have less school choice and a lot of them have more school choice particularly in a number of the Scandinavian countries, even in Canada and in Britain where they’re, you know, directly subsidizing certain private schools. But I think what you really want to do if you want to hone in on this argument—and there are other arguments for school choice besides its efficiency and, you know, increasing test scores. But if you want to hone in on this, what you want to do is have it randomize control trial, right? Fortunately, we’ve had about 20 of them. There was a study—a meta-analysis, a study of studies that was released last week that compiled all of the random assignment studies. Now the random assignment is the gold standard in social science research sort of like what we do in medicine where you take a group of people, you randomly divide them into two, half you give the treatment, half you don’t and then you compare the outcomes. The only difference between these 2 groups is random chance and the treatment and, therefore, you know, you can reasonably conclude that the treatment is what caused any difference in these 2 groups.

So, when you have a voucher program, a number of voucher programs if there’s over subscription then there is a lottery. And so you can compare the people that applied for and got the voucher and the people that applied for and didn’t get the voucher, so you have an apples-to-apples comparison and then you look at their outcomes years later. So that the great thing about this study, this meta-analysis from the University of Arkansas that came out last week is it looks at 19 different randomized controlled trials in the United States and elsewhere and finds positive effects for both reading and math exams. So, I mean there’s very strong evidence that these programs are actually improving student outcomes and there’s a lot of other research and, you know, some randomized controlled trials as well that show that students are more likely to graduate from high school, they’re more likely to enroll in college. So there’s a lot of evidence out there that these programs do actually improve student outcomes.

Matthew Feeney: What is the best argument against school choice that you’ve come across?

Jason Bedrick: It’s a good question. There is a concern that if you had school choice and then, you know, given the status quo that what you’re going to see is people fleeing the public schools and the people that are going to leave first are the people that are the most well-informed and that have the—you know, if the voucher doesn’t cover all of tuition, it’s going to be the people that can make up that difference. So, even if they’re, you know, not wealthy because, you know, wealthy people already have that choice. But middle income families as opposed to low income families and the parents that are most interested in education and the money is going to fall on them. So, what you’re going to do is you’re going to leave the least well-off left in the public school system which now has fewer resources, has lost a lot of its best students and, yeah, this is just going to be the perfect storm that’s going to leave the least well-off even worse off. And that’s I think—that would be a legitimate concern.

But again, we’ve got more than 20 studies that have looked at the effect of competition on public schools and all of them find either neutral or positive effects, which is to say that when students leave the public school system, these public schools are responding in some way to that competition and that student outcome is actually increased after school choice program is enacted. In particular, some of these studies measure differences among schools of, you know, how close is the nearest private school that is competing with the school, how many private schools are, you know, in a 5-mile or 10-mile radius of this public school and find that the greater amount of competition there is, the more improvement that those students see. So, really what you see is these schools are responding to competition, so even the students that don’t actually exercise the choice end up benefiting because they have access to that choice and the school knows that they have access to that choice as well.

Aaron Powell: When these schools improve because of the competition even if the students are leaving them, how are they improving? I mean are we talking like they’re saying, “Oh no, people are leaving so we’re going to actually get serious about this and fire bad teachers and hire better ones,” or are the individual teachers working harder? Are they changing the curriculum—correct things off instead at like district level and so the teachers don’t have a lot of wiggle room there. So what are they doing in response?

Jason Bedrick: That’s a good question. I mean unfortunately the types of journals that are publishing these studies tend only to look at the quantitative analysis and you don’t have—you know, just the policy world, you don’t have a lot of journals that are publishing things that combine qualitative research with quantitative research. So we’ve got a lot of research that shows this is what’s happening and then the authors speculate exactly the sort of things that you were saying. But we don’t have yet—and I would really like to see people that go into the schools in these areas and conduct surveys, conduct interviews and say, “What did you do differently in the last few years?” But I mean anecdotally we do know that those sorts of things are happening.

I mean I can tell you a personal example. When I was in grad school, you know, for public policy, we had a seminar where we had to have an outside client and there was a woman in my class whose outside client was a public school. And there was a charter school that had opened up nearby a few years ago and a lot of the public school students had left and gone over to the charter school and so the public school had lost money. Now, that school wanted to know why because the charter schools test scores were no better. So why are all these parents leaving? And what she found in her research interviewing parents was—they said “When we would come into the public school if we had a problem that we wanted addressed, we couldn’t get ahold of anybody, you know, they would tell us they would get back to us. They wouldn’t. They would send us over to some other person who also didn’t have an answer to our question and they just weren’t responsive to us. And when the charter school opened up in town, you know, I get a flyer in my mailbox telling me to show up. I came to the school. The principal gave me a tour, gave her cell phone number, you know, anytime I go in with an issue, they immediately address it. And I knew that they cared about my kid and they cared about, you know, us as a family and so really it was like a customer service issue, right? I mean they were—the charter school knew that if we weren’t taking care of this family, they were going to go somewhere else.”

The public school up until that point knew that their families didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and so once the public school realized, “Okay, we’re now in competition with those people down the street. We now need to be more responsive. We need to make sure that there’s a reception desk at the front. We need to make sure that if a parent calls, we get back to them.” But, you know, she didn’t address what actually goes on in the classroom. But I mean you can imagine that, you know, if there’s fats to cut and suddenly you’re in competition, you’re going to say, “Okay, we’re going to start focusing on the essentials and we’re going to—you know, we’re not going to—you know, if I have a choice between spending more money on some administrator or spending more money on, you know, another teacher, maybe I’m going to hire that other teacher.” And actually that is a very serious problem because we see in, you know, the last 40 years, the number of teachers have—the increase in the number of teachers has outpaced significantly the increase in the number of students. But the increase in the number of administrators is like 8 times the increase in the number of students in the last 4 years. So, we’re spending a lot more outside the classroom than we are inside the classroom in terms of, you know, new dollars.

Aaron Powell: Yeah, that was—my wife taught at 2 different private elementary schools from when I met her when we moved out here to D.C. And the really striking thing about those private schools was the number of administrators, like the number of people who are above her as a classroom teacher at each one you could count on one hand and I think in one of the cases it was 2 people and it worked very well and it was just—it’s night and day compared to the public schools.

Jason Bedrick: Right. I mean I recently did a review of a book called The Prize by Dale Russakoff, which was about the Newark, New Jersey school system and again—I mean these are some of the worst schools in the country and they’re spending north of $20,000 per pupil. And they said that the—she was pointing out how the corruption in the central office and how even clerks had clerks and just how much incredible waste there was there. And, unfortunately, I mean Mark Zuckerberg poured 100 million dollars into the system and there was 100 million dollars in matching grants and it got entirely eaten up by the system and there was almost no change whatsoever. I mean if he had just spent that money providing scholarships to students to go to the school of their choice and, you know, the system had more competition, maybe you would have seen more improvement than what ended up happening which was, you know, more than half of the money went to, you know, back pay for teacher raises that they claimed they should have gotten they didn’t get and most of the money just was sucked up by the system and didn’t actually change anything unfortunately.

Matthew Feeney: So, we’ve mentioned—or you mentioned, I should say, that D.C. were looking at $30,000 a year and Newark, New Jersey it sounds like $20,000. And my ignorant question is, how much should it cost? I mean how much should it cost? Because my bird’s eye view of this is it sounds like a lot but what’s the reasonable price that we should be paying? And in the voucher systems, what is a normal, you know, voucher figure that we can look at?

Jason Bedrick: So, what should it cost? I have no idea. I mean that’s the beautiful thing about price system is nobody can know in advance what something should cost, you know. And prices themselves provide information and unfortunately we have a system that doesn’t do that. I can tell you that the national average is, you know, a little over $12,000 per pupil at the public schools. But, you know, as far as how much the vouchers give, I mean that varies considerably from state to state. So, in some cases, it’s about half of what the public schools are getting. In other cases, it can be even less. You know, several states do something like 80% to 90% of what the state kicks in, but then the state portion varies from like 1/3 to 2/3 and some of that is local, so it’s really hard to say. But I would say that, you know, vouchers tend to be in the range of like $4000 to $8000. And then, you know, special needs vouchers can be much higher. For example, the education savings account in Arizona, it’s 90% of the state portion that you get. But students with special needs, they can be getting—I mean let’s say a typical student is going to get somewhere in the range of about $4000 to $5000, but a student with special needs could be getting around $20,000 depending on what they have and a lot of them are getting between $10,000 and $20,000.

Aaron Powell: We’ve got—we’ve talked about vouchers, but vouchers are not the only way that we advance school choice. So there are some other terms that get thrown around or other programs. So there’s charter schools and so there’s—are those a form of school choice?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I mean their school choice in that, you know, you have to opt into them but their charter schools are public schools. They’re entirely publicly financed and they have a lot of—you know, they have fewer roles and regulations than the traditional district schools, but they—for example, they can’t have a religious affiliation. They can’t have their own mission standards. They have to accept every child that shows up and have a lottery if there’s oversubscription and they have to usually give the state test. So, there’s—and sometimes, you know, in some states, they say, “Well, you know, 50% of your teachers have to be traditionally certified” even though report from the Brookings Institution a couple of years ago showed that there was no difference in effectiveness between traditionally certified, alternatively certified or even non-certified teachers. It’s just sort of, you know, like licensing, it’s just a barrier to entry that doesn’t actually end up, you know, at least in this case having any impact in terms of outcomes. But they’re a form of school choice, but I would say they’re pretty weak teeth.

Aaron Powell: What about—we’ve got—so what? Education tax credits and also education savings accounts?

Jason Bedrick: Yes. So, the education tax credits or tuition tax credits or tax credits scholarships. They’ve got a bunch of different names. There’s really 2 forms of those. There’s the personal use education tax credit where, you know, you would get a credit on your taxes for every dollar that you spend on your child’s tuition up to a certain amount. Those are usually capped. And then there’s the scholarship tax credit where individuals and corporations donate to a non-profit scholarship organization and they get a tax credit anywhere usually from 50% to 100% of their donation. They just reduce their tax burden by that amount. And those non-profit scholarship organizations then give us scholarship to usually low or low and minimal income students to attend the school of their choice. So functionally they work very similar to a voucher, but they’re privately financed.

And this is actually an important constitutional distinction. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than a decade ago that vouchers don’t violate the first amendment because, you know, the ACLU and other groups had sued voucher program in Cleveland because they said that, you know, these students are using it at let’s say Catholic school and this is public subsidizing of religion and that this shouldn’t be allowed. And what the Supreme Court said is “No, this is—it has a legitimate secular purpose and the only entanglement with religion is indirect and incidental to the choices of parents. So we give money to the parents and say, “Go buy your kid an education. You’re not going to send your kid to the public school and instead we’re going to give you a lesser amount of money to go somewhere else.” And if they choose a Catholic school, that’s their choice. I mean just like, you know, if somebody takes their food stamps and goes and has Passover dinner. That doesn’t violate the first amendment.

But, a lot of states have what’s called the Blaine Amendment. To give a brief background on that, in the late 1800’s, when the Nativist movement was very prominent before their resurgent Nativist, there was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment and public schools in those days were de factor nondenominational protestant schools. So, you know, they would teach the Bible and they would have school prayer. But, in a way that any Baptist or Episcopalian or Congregationalist would be satisfied but not Catholics and, to a lesser extent, not Lutherans as well. So Catholics started coming to this country, a lot of German, French, Irish immigrants Romanism and rebellion, right? There was this fear that they—they started to ask for their own schools. They said, “Look, you were paying taxes to your protestant school like we should also have our Catholic schools be publicly subsidized.” And the protestant establishment said, “No, no, no. We are running common schools for everybody. You’re running parochial schools.” And so they tried to the senator for Maine named James Blaine tried to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution and failed, but almost every state constitution—about 40 states—ended up adopting the Blaine Amendment which says that public funds can’t be used at religious schools.

And the tax credit programs—because you’re dealing with private funds—I mean the donation is entirely voluntary. It goes from a private citizen to a private charity to, you know, private parents to give their kids education at a private school. It has been consistently upheld against Blaine Amendments around the country, and so that’s one option. And then the education savings account usually publicly funded. It doesn’t have to be, but usually it’s the government—if you choose not to send your child to a public school, which means a district or a charter, then you will get a savings account worth about 90% of what the state would have kicked in and you can use it not just like a voucher which is a coupon that you use entirely in one place at one time. They give you a savings account that you can use in multiple places, so not just for private school tuition but also for tutors, textbooks, home school curriculum, online learning, and you can even save it from your year for later expenses including college. So, it sort of works like health savings accounts in that sense.

So those are the 3 main types of school choice. The main advantages of the educational savings accounts are that you’re moving from school choice to educational choice, right? We’re recognizing that not all education takes place in a traditional classroom. So, you’ve got a wider variety of options and parents can really customize their child’s education. And, two, there is this fear that vouchers—first, they create a price for—if you have a $5000 voucher, nobody is going to provide tuition that’s less than $5000. It can also fuel tuition inflation like we’ve seen the Pell Grant has done in higher ed—Pell voucher for that matter. But, with the education savings account, because you can spend it in multiple places and roll it over from year to year, you don’t create a price floor and you’ve got somewhere downward pressure on price.

Matthew Feeney: So, your discussion on the religious side of this reminded me of a question I had when I was thinking about this podcast, which is some people might say against school choice that there’s a social cohesion argument here which is it’s just going to allow people to segregate themselves so that people in different religious communities and people who don’t value athletics or some people that do value languages and some people who don’t really care about science will be able to segregate themselves and children will be educated in an environment amongst people who just agree with their parents basically. Is this a concern that’s legitimate? Is there any reason to think that the proliferation of school choice is what led to a more segregated society?

Jason Bedrick: We haven’t really seen that in other societies, you know, from Canada and England and Scandinavian nations, Chile. We haven’t really seen that that has been a problem. I mean the alternative is, well, one of the reasons that the protestant establishment didn’t want the Catholics to have their own schools was precisely for this reason because we want them to send their children to our schools and we are going to Protestantize, right? So the alternative to having a diverse system is to have this melting pot system of assimilation, you know, you come in and we’re going to teach you our values. So I think any libertarian or any liberal who values pluralism should find that to be very problematic. But the interesting thing is actually—has been a lot of research on this question and not just that but, you know, civic values and things like that which you’re more likely to learn in a public school, the theory.

Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas had a literature review a few years ago called Civics Exam and he looked at all of the research on these questions and found that actually private schools and school choice systems tend to outperform the public schools when it came to civic knowledge, civic values, and even respect for pluralism, you know. So actually one of the interesting studies that they’re replicated multiple times is they asked students if—you know, they give them a list of different groups and they say, you know, which of these groups is your least favorite group? And you’d be happy to know that the KKK is the highest ranks—you know, the least favored group out of all these groups. But among Hispanic students, the least favorite group was LGBT activists. And so they asked a bunch of questions like “Do you think our system should allow somebody who’s in this favored group of yours to have freedom of speech? Should they be allowed to have a march or prayed? Should they be allowed to run for office? Should they be allowed to be a teacher?”

And what’s interesting is that students that attended private schools were statistically significantly more likely to say yes to those questions than students that attended public schools. And even among the Hispanic students, you know, those who attended Catholic schools which you might think—you know, given the Catholic church’s teachings, you might think that they would be less likely to give political freedoms to LGBT activists. The opposite was true. If a Hispanic student went to a Catholic school, they were more likely to express tolerance toward this favored group than if they had gone to a public school.

So, I mean, if we value pluralism and we value freedom, we should have a school system that reflects and respects that pluralism and that freedom. And the public school system—I mean yes, we live in a very diverse society and the public school system, its political control, it’s a zero-sum game, right? So if you have several different groups that have differing values and you put them in a system where only one of those values is really going to be reflected in the school then you’re forcing them into conflict. I mean there’s a long history of this. I think Neal McCluskey came on this podcast a while back and was talking to you guys about the Philadelphia Bible riots where there was literally bloodshed on the streets over how the Bible is going to be taught in class. It’s a much more peaceful system to let parents send their children to schools that reflect their values and, you know—I respect that you send your kids to that school that respects your values. I’m going to send my kids to the school that reflects my values and then we can live together instead of fighting over whose values are going to be expressed.

Aaron Powell: Can we take that too far though? So with a voucher, there’s the concern that gets raised, you know, they could use this money on really religious schools that are teaching stuff that we as a society think isn’t quite right. But still they’re like—you have to give it to a school. But like the education savings account if I think that buying—the best way to educate my kids is to buy them all of the Star Wars novels and read them so we have a real solid understanding of the fall of the old republic, which is important stuff to know about.

Jason Bedrick: I agree, yes.

Aaron Powell: Is there anything that can stop me from doing that? Like there’s still—you know, who gets to draw that line of what counts as education spending or not?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. So, you’re right, the line has to be drawn somewhere. I don’t believe in the current systems that the Star Wars novels would count. Usually textbooks are in—

Aaron Powell: Agreed or disagreed.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So they—well, I mean it might be educational but it wouldn’t count for as an approved expenditure, right? So there’s textbooks counts but, you know, your average run-of-the-mill novel is not going to count. You can certainly buy it and use it as an educational tool, but not with education savings account money, right? And there is an accountability mechanism in these programs where in some states you have to submit your receipts, but in others, they give you a debit card and you can only use it for approved purchases, so you can’t just like go to a casino and use it. It’s a restricted-use debit card.

But, yeah, I mean the lines do get blurry at the edges and I would prefer to have more freedom than not. But, you know, even without the education savings account, you could have parents home-schooling and doing the exact same thing. I guess the question is do we—there’s no perfect system, right? Nobody is promising utopia. The real question is not comparing school choice to some—or educational choice I should say—to some imagined ideal that probably we can never achieve but compared to all of the reasonable alternatives. And so, you know, when government bureaucrats make a mistake, that affects tons of children, right? You know, when a state decades ago adopted whole language as opposed to phonics, you can talk to teachers, you know, high school English teachers and they can tell you the year that the kids who switched over from phonics to whole language got to their classroom because there is a market decline in their ability to spell and put together sentences and things like that.

So, you know, if a parent makes a choice like that and choose poorly, it affects their children and it’s a terrible thing. But the question is, who is more likely to make choices in the best interest of their children? Is it the parents? They’re the more likely ones too to make those decisions wisely or are bureaucrats whose own children aren’t necessarily subject to the system more likely to make wise decisions. I think that we should, you know, for the most part trust parents. They’re going to make mistakes sometimes, but I would much rather put my faith in parents than in a political system.

Aaron Powell: Is there a concern though that if school choice or educational choice shifts a lot more of the decision-making to the parents that the benefits that come with it are going to flow disproportionately to those parents who maybe themselves have the education to better make those decisions or have the time to better make those decisions or don’t face language barriers or whatever else and so we’re not going to see as much help for the poor, uneducated parents who can’t make those good decisions?

Jason Bedrick: I think it’s actually the opposite. I think those parents are already in the current system advantaged, but that a lot of the low-income families that, you know, aren’t as active in their school or seem to be as interested in education. It’s a rational ignorance because there is—they don’t have other options, right? But again going back to Patrick Wolf, he had a book, The School Choice Journey, which looked at the Washington D.C. system and it was a qualitative study where he actually went in and he did interview a whole bunch of families and whatnot and found that when these families were in the public school system, they were not doing a lot of interacting because they couldn’t make any changes or anything like that.

But once they were given options, these same families were going in doing tours in multiple schools and they were reading up and asking friends, you know, “What do you think about this school or that school?” They were getting in touched with their social network to figure out which school is best for their kid, and they were even becoming more politically engaged when the Obama administration tried to cut funding for the D.C. voucher program. They came out in force and they were rallying and they writing to their congressperson—their pseudo-congressperson who doesn’t have a vote—and writing to the President and actually becoming more politically engaged as well. So, we see that, you know, yes, there’s this image that low-income families are not as engaged, but I think—again, the reason that they’re not engaged is because I think the current system, it doesn’t make sense to be engaged because they can’t change anything. But if you’re given a choice then there’s a reason for them to be engaged than they actually do.

Matthew Feeney: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the competition among syllabi curriculum in the educational choice movement because I think a lot of people might think, “Well, this will be a nightmare” because there will be tens of thousands, you know, hundreds of thousands of different schools where all teachers who will be arguing for different books to be read and different textbooks to be used. But then I intuitively think and I could be wrong about this that there must be competition among curriculum and there must be competition amongst syllabi and textbooks. Do you see that in people who have chosen to opt out of the state education system?

Jason Bedrick: I mean there are definitely more options out there. I mean one of the issues with our current system, we had like 50 states that each sort of had their own system and the major textbook companies were trying to appeal to them. So most of them either appealed to Texas or California because those are the largest markets and then they would make minor tweaks, you know, if some state had some idiosyncratic thing. And then, some of the big textbook companies fell in love with Common Core because they were like, “Well, I can just call my book Common Core-approved and then, you know, every state, you know, almost is going to, you know, just going to appeal to them, which I think is highly problematic as well because we don’t know that there’s one best way to teach students, I would actually like to see a diversity of options and, you know, we don’t know—I mean some methods might work better for some kids and some methods might work better for others, right?

But there are definitely options. I mean like just in math, I mean you go out there and you find there’s Saxon Math. There’s Singapore Math. There’s Japanese Math and there’s all different, you know, people saying, you know, “Our system is better. Our system is better.” I think that’s great. And parents, you know, can go select one. If it works for their kid, fantastic. Stick with it. If they find it’s not working for their kid, they can go with something else, which again is another reason for school choice. I mean really we’re talking about, you know, this efficiency argument but even at a school that on average is very high-performing, right? For some kids that are signed at school, it just might not be the best fit. So, let them go somewhere else where they have, you know—instead of a traditional classroom, there’s a more Montessori style or, you know, they’re able to, you know, work online and go at their own pace. So, more choice, the better.

Aaron Powell: You mentioned the online learning and the Montessori and that raises question I had about how much a real market in education would change the way that we get education and think about education? Because we do have a lot of private schools in this country, but by and large, they look like—structurally, they look like public schools. It’s the same sort of show up and grades and—


Aaron Powell: Yeah. And so, why is that? And are we—is that because that’s the system that actually works? Or is there something that’s preventing all of these really out there models from establishing themselves?

Jason Bedrick: Good question, and I can’t answer it. I mean we have to see what the market would produce. We have no idea. Maybe this would be the system. I think a lot of—one of the main reasons that the alternatives looked a lot like the public schools were that the main alternatives for a century were essentially the Catholic schools and some Lutheran schools. And the argument that they were making was “Hey, we are going to provide the same exact education as you’re going to get in the public school system, so we’re going to look just like them. The difference is we’re also going to be teaching you, you know, about the Catholic faith” and that’s what parents wanted.

So, I mean, now you have more and more parents who are saying, “Well, I want something else. I want heavier emphasis on STEM.” Or in the opposite direction, “I want to a heavier emphasis on arts and drama, literature.”

Aaron Powell: Star Wars.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Or “I want great books.” So, if we had—right now, the school choice programs that we have by and large are very small. They’re dealing with, you know, sometimes less than 2% of the population, maybe up to 5% to 10% max excluding charter schools and that which basically will for the most part like public schools. But if we were to adopt a system of school choice, we have no idea how that is going to develop over time. You know, that’s one of the beautiful things about the market.

Just look at the iPhone, for example. The iPhone is a platform for innovation and there are tens of thousands of apps on there that Steve Jobs never could have imagined, you know, same thing with the education savings accounts. I mean I know some of the people who were involved in creating the first education savings account in Arizona and they will tell you that they were surprised at how some families were using it especially when it came to special ed for example. Educational therapy is one of the approved categories of expenses and the state approved equine therapy for students with cerebral palsy, something I’d never heard of. But apparently, students with cerebral palsy have difficulty with their motor skills even basic tasks like walking especially things like, you know, playing on a playground. But if they are trained to ride a horse, their brain sort of rewires itself and then they’re able to walk much better than they were before or even again playing on the playground.

Yeah, there’s a video I think the American Federation for Children put out where there are parents of a child with cerebral palsy in tears describing how this worked for their child and they wouldn’t have had it without the system. So, I mean that’s just one example with special needs child, but we have no idea how—what the market is going to create to fill the needs that parents have.

Aaron Powell: In countries that have more school choice than we do, do we see a wider range of educational styles?

Jason Bedrick: Well, none have adopted the education savings account yet. I mean that was an American invention, so most of the other systems either are directly subsidizing private schools like they do in Britain and Canada or they have a voucher system. But, like in Chile, for example, their voucher system mandates the national curriculum and there are lots of regulations that go along with it and so, yes, there’s choice but I mean, you know, you can choose among all of the McDonalds in the world but you have to choose a McDonalds, right? And, you know, the private McDonalds might produce a better and more consistent hamburger than the publicly-run McDonalds, but you’re essentially—you don’t have that much choice.

So, yeah, that’s nice. It’s helpful. It’s an improvement over the status quo, but we would like to go much further. I mean the Milton Friedman gold standard idea of a voucher was a system that didn’t have controls over price that the government wasn’t dictating what the curriculum was going to be, wasn’t dictating, you know, what type of test the students would have to take. That we haven’t tried yet.

Aaron Powell: What stands in the way of public choice then? Is it—we often blame the teachers unions. Is that accurate? Are they the biggest hurdle in moving us in this direction?

Jason Bedrick: They’re definitely one of the bigger ones. I mean there’s a number of lawsuits around the country and they’re involved in most of them. That either directly or, you know, basically front groups that are trying to block school choice and legislatively the unions—but also the—sort of the public school establishment, you know, the superintendents association and things like that are the ones that are usually fighting it in the legislature. But that doesn’t explain fully why we don’t have school choice yet. I mean if you—depending on how you ask the question, you’re going to get, you know—if you ask “Do you support sending students to private school at public expense?” then you’re going to get in the mid to high 40s and then if you ask, you know, “Should we give students more options?” you know, or something like that, or “Should we give students—should the state provide students with a scholarship to go to the school of their choice?” then you’re going to get, you know, north of 50%.

I think a lot of people, you know, they’re used to the system that they grow up in. It worked pretty well for them and so anything that might be considered threatening to that, they’re not going to like. But one of the more recent studies by the Friedman Foundation surveys broke it down by age cohort. And the interesting thing was that younger Americans like between 18 and 35, it was, you know, north of 65% support whereas in their survey Americans that were over age 65 were, you know, just about 50% support for school choice options. So why is that? Why are younger people more likely to support choice? Well, it could be, you know—if you were to ask them, “Would you like to raise taxes to increase funding for your local public school?” you might see a similar dynamic. Those, you know, people who are in the age cohort that have children in the school system are more likely to say “Yes, I want more money for the public schools.” Those whose kids already raised would say no. But I think that doesn’t explain fully.

I think a lot of it is that the younger generation has grown up with, you know, things like the iPhone, right? They’re used to customizing every single aspect of their life, but there’s this one area where you’re signed to something based on the home that you can afford and so when you say, “Well, do you think that you should be able to customize things?” they say yes and even talk to you like you’re a typical Bernie Sanders supporter. They’re using Uber and they’re using Lift and this is—you know, they don’t see that as a political statement. They don’t see that as “Yes, I support the market over the establishment and the taxi cab union or whatever. I’m a pro-market person.” They just—now, this isn’t about the market. This is about choice and customization of my own life.

Matthew Feeney: So to wrap up chat here, give us an idea about the state of affairs and where we’re going as far as school choice goes and if you’re optimistic about the future.

Jason Bedrick: I am very optimistic about the future. Right now, there are 31 states that have some sort of private school choice program. So, again, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, vouchers. I’m not including charter schools in that. But again, most of them are very, very small but, you know, maybe it is the camel’s nose under the tent. I mean the idea is that hopefully people are going to experience some small amount of population and they’re going to send their child to the school of their choice or use ESA’s customized education for their child and their neighbors are going to say, “Well, hey, why don’t I have that?” And the answer is, you know, like in Maryland, they just passed a program. Great, it’s the first voucher program that Maryland has ever had and people didn’t expect that Maryland would get it for a while, but it’s limited to like 1000 students. So, I mean that’s less than 1% of the population. That’s not going to create the dynamic market for school choice. That’s going to fill some empty seats at some existing private schools.

But over time, as these programs grow in terms of popularity, then they’re also going to grow in terms of the number of students that are participating. Some of them even have automatic increases year after year like in Florida where next year there’s going to be over 100,000 students that are participating in school choice programs in Florida. More and more people are going to say, “Hey, I want that choice for myself.” I mean it’s like if you were going to a city and say, “Okay, only 10% of the population is going to have access to Uber,” other people might very soon be clamoring for access to Uber as well and politics is downstream from culture. You know, when people decide, you know, “Hey, we want choice in our lives including how we educate our children,” the politicians are going to come around. The interesting thing is in states like Florida, for example, where there was vociferous opposition especially on the left which, you know, the unions are a very important part of their coalition, so it’s understandable. Once the school choice programs are enacted, you actually see that the politicians start to come around.

For example, they had a rally right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year with Martin Luther King III leading about 10,000 mostly black and brown people in a rally for school choice because the teacher’s union is suing the state. There’s over 70,000 students participating in the program right now and the teacher’s union wants to eliminate it. They took it to court and the rally—the message of the rally was drop the suit and the NAACP is actually a party to the lawsuit but former NAACP President and a number of leaders of black churches have been pressuring the NAACP to drop out because they’re saying, “Hey, most of the participants in this program are our people and they’re benefiting from it and we want to give these kids a better future and they’re getting that at the school that they’ve chosen as opposed to the school that they were zoned to.” And so I think we’re already seeing on the left that there is a break up in their coalition, right? So, low-income minorities recognize the benefit of choice for them in a very visceral sense and over time I think that’s going to overpower the vested interest of the teacher’s unions, and we will see within, you know, probably 20 years. I think we’re going to see large percentage of the population are participating the school choice programs.

Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at