A New School Year Arrives, but the Same (Lack of) Choice Remains

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A New School Year Arrives, but the Same (Lack of) Choice Remains

August 25, 2008 3 min read

Authors: Ariel Cohen and Sally McNamara

A New School Year Arrives, but the Same (Lack of) Choice Remains

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By Lindsey Burke

Americans expect choices and are, in general, savvy consumers. In turn, the U.S. market meets this expectation and supplies its citizens with an abundance of choice. Restaurants provide food selections from around the globe, the cereal isle at the grocery store has more options than a sugar-seeking child could ever hope for, and the TV provides over 100 channels from which to choose.

When it comes to education, Americans are also accustomed to a plethora of choices, at least during the back-to-school shopping seasons. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were over 24,000 family clothing stores, more than 26,000 shoe stores and in excess of 9,000 department stores in 2005.

Parents have enormous purchasing power when it concerns outfitting their children, updating their electronics and filling their backpacks with all of the necessary supplies for school. The National Retail Federation estimates that over $20 billion will be spent on back to school shopping this year, with the average family spending around $594.24. Imagine if parents had the same kind of purchasing power over the $519 billion that will be spent on public elementary and secondary schools during the 2008-09 academic year. With national per pupil expenditures exceeding $10,000 per year, parents should certainly have a say in how their money is being spent.

The best way to ensure parents have control over education spending is to provide them with the same ability to choose as they have in most other areas of their lives.

In theory, families are free to choose where their children go to school. While many parents select private schools for their children, other families cannot afford to make the same decision. In order to therefore ensure that their children are receiving a quality education, they must instead choose where they live. Many, however, do not have the luxury of such a selection either, meaning their children are often left in failing public schools.

What is the end result of this educational constraint? Millions of American children - often referred to as "our nation's future" - are stuck in under-performing schools. These children are denied a decent education and are relegated to failing schools simply because of the zip codes in which they live. With an estimated 56 million students expected to enroll in the nation's schools this fall-an all-time high-the plight of children not receiving a decent education cannot be ignored.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's "report card," shows how poorly American students are performing, highlighting the troubles within the public school system. Thirty-three percent of fourth graders scored "below basic" on reading, as did 26 percent of eighth-graders. National graduation rates have stagnated around 73 percent, with rates considerably lower among minority students. Only 59 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanic students graduated in 2006.

Parents have higher hopes than this for their children. The National Center for Education Statistics highlights parental aspirations in its 2007 National Household Education Survey. Less than 1 percent of parents said they do not expect their children to graduate, yet nearly 25 percent of students aren't doing so. Forty percent of these parents expect their children to earn a four-year college degree (in reality, only 28 percent of people do), and 30 percent expect their children to earn a graduate or professional degree (only 9 percent do). Why isn't reality matching with expectations?

In every aspect of our lives, we search for the best. Friends and co-workers consult one another for references to a good doctor, we compare how businesses perform in order to inform our choices, and we seek the advice of financial advisors before making investment decisions.

Parental choice works in much the same way, holding schools accountable for the results they produce. Although people of adequate means often have the luxury of paying for private school for their children-while simultaneously supporting children in the public school system through largely exorbitant property tax rates-low- and even middle-income families cannot always afford to do the same. Choice in education provides the opportunity for children from every economic and social background to have good academic opportunities.

With the school year quickly approaching, many families are being made plainly aware of the choices they don't have. Parents should at a minimum have the same amount of choice in education as they do in shoe stores. After all, isn't what children are putting in their heads more important than what they are putting on their feet?

Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.


Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS

Sally McNamara
Sally McNamara