I’m an educator with a decade of experience in public schools. Most of my public educator friends oppose school choice programs, while I heartily endorse them. This makes us odd company at times, but I’m grateful my friends so patiently tolerate me.
With increasing interest in some form of vouchers in Utah and elsewhere, there’s been a lot of talk in education circles about how to limit vouchers’ impact on public schools. It seems to me that there are two broad ways to do this: fight politically, and fight for kids educationally. I advocate for the latter. This is an area in which we can find commonalities and make progress that benefits families, teachers and schools.
In particular, there are five things that public schools can do to lessen the impact of vouchers.
End residential assignment
Why do I favor school choice policies? Because I want poor kids in failing schools to have an escape hatch.
But why can’t they have an escape hatch right now? That is, why can’t we let families pick their public schools? If the goal is to let every family have access to a great public school, what faster way is there? Why not end residential assignment outright?
Utah already has taken some steps in this direction — why not make this the default? Rather than letting ZIP codes determine schools (and their quality) why not ask every family to choose a school that is the best fit for their child?
Get behavior right
There’s a homeschooler joke that goes like this:
“If you homeschool your kids, they won’t fit in with contemporary culture!”
Getting behavior right is by far the easiest way to keep families in your schools. It’s more than just preventing violent incidents that circulate on social media or avoiding getting in the news. It’s about culture, values and creating a place for children to thrive. Getting behavior right will retain families in public schools, and it also gives schools a better shot at keeping the best teachers, too.
This is more than just reducing suspensions. It’s about values and culture, as well as personal, physical, social and even spiritual safety. We owe that to kids anyway. Why not take the chance to deliver?
Offer teacher choice
If you had to pick, which would you choose? A good school? Or a good teacher? While people tend to focus on good schools, those “in the know” will tell you what really matters in a child’s life is great teachers.
Letting families choose their schools is controversial, but letting them choose a teacher shouldn’t be. This isn’t easy; it’ll take some real work to figure out the logistics. But the premise is right: parents should have a say in getting the very best teachers for their child.
Improve teacher pay
I’m a math guy, so I’m supposed to like numbers. But there’s one I don’t love: $30,000.
When I worked in Baltimore, Maryland, I did some back-of-the-envelope math to figure out how much we were spending on each child in the classroom when you include local, state and federal money, grants and capital spending.
The number I came up with? $30,000.
When I taught, we had 32 students in each class. So I did the math: 32 x 30,000 = $960,000.
Let that number wash over you. I didn’t get half that. Or even a 10th. That’s a lot of overhead.
To be fair, Utah’s per-student expenditure is nowhere near that. In 2022, the average per-student spending was $8,968 in Utah, compared to $28,704 per student in New York, according to the National Education Association. And yet, despite consistent increases in national expenditures on education, we don’t seem to be moving the needle on student achievement. Meanwhile, the average starting teacher salary in Utah, $44,349, is less than the minimum living wage of $49,686, according to the NEA.
It’s past time someone looked into how we can push more funding toward our teachers.
When Lyft and Uber came to town, the taxi industry pushed back. When Airbnb came to town, the hotel lobby intensified their efforts to fend off the competition. One way to fight vouchers is through lobbying: grass-roots campaigning, letter-writing and collecting signatures.
There’s another way, however: they can provide such a high quality education that families would choose their public school over any other school. They can fight vouchers by having the hard conversations about doing whatever it will take to better serve families.
I don’t support choice programs because they show better academic results for kids (frankly, they sometimes don’t). Rather, I support them because I support competitive systems over monopolies. When you bring competition to schools, both the private schools and the public schools (including the schools left behind!) consistently improve.
And the best evidence we have suggests that vouchers will encourage schools to compete to keep kids. When choice comes to Utah, I’d bet that the same will happen as what happens in other places: schools will find new ways to help kids.
And in the end, that is the best way for public schools to fight vouchers.
Benjamin Pacini is a former middle school math teacher and assistant principal. He now teaches future teachers at BYU-Idaho.