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How COVID-19 upset the case against school choice

I have written extensively on how COVID-19 has changed the education landscape and has revealed to parents the shortcomings of a top-down education system, leading many to seek out alternative learning environments that they may not have previously been interested in or privy to before the virus hit.

Armed with this new information, and first-hand experiences with the challenges of distance learning, parents of children in public schools have increased their support for school choice by 10 percentage points—from 67 percent to 77 percent. Paired with an EdChoice survey that found 70 percent of parents wanted more than one educational option this fall and a Manhattan Institute poll of voters in battleground states that found two-thirds supported “publicly funded K-12 school choice,” COVID-19 has “capsized the case against school choice,” according to Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute.

Yes, he does note that these numbers are “snapshots” and “can be affected by how questions are worded,” but they still show that the “anti-choice stance is less compelling than it used to be.”

Hess reflects on what used to be the most effective argument made by opponents of school choice,

that we can’t trust choice to yield decent options for every child. And since every child has a right to be schooled, it’s important to protect traditional public school systems in order to assure an acceptable default education for every child.

However, given the past six months, what’s guaranteed under the universal public system “is a lot less than we imagined,” Hess continues.

When push comes to shove, public school systems have defined “universal provision of schooling” as doing their best to provide online instruction, materials, and support to as many students as possible.

States and communities could provide a bunch of online materials—along with a device for every child and better connectivity—for a small fraction of the $700 billion a year we currently spend on K-12 schooling. They could then use the bulk of that funding to empower parents to choose the option—local district school, charter school, private school, online provider, or what have you—that seems right for them.

Yes, this is a challenging time for school leadership, but even if they are doing their best, “this isn’t about the good intentions of district officials or teachers,” Hess stresses. “The issue, rather, is that universalist ‘public’ systems aren’t delivering what was promised. This makes it harder for those who would denounce school choice’s tapestry of options as an inadequate or immoral alternative to make their case.”

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