School Choice — Who Opposes It and Why?

Release Date
January 24, 2017



Does school choice threaten teachers unions and public schools? And do its benefits for religious schools violate the First Amendment? Erica Smith busts the myths.

    1. Trump’s Secretary of Education pick is good news for religious freedom (blog post): Mark Hall argues that school choice is actually good for religious freedom. 
    2. Montana School Choice (article): Want to learn more about the work that Erica Smith does? Click here to find out about a school choice case she is working on in Montana
    3. 5 Myths About School Choice (blog post): Fact: School choice improves outcomes across the board. 
Evan: School choice, it sounds great right? I mean I get to choose, parents know what’s best for their child, everything about it in theory sounds wonderful, but of course it is a very controversial issue. We saw recently with President Elect Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, a lot of the controversy around that pick centered on her support for school choice. Why is this so controversial? Why is it such a lightning rod for parents and teachers and education professionals across the country?
Erica: Well it is very controversial and the two main groups that are opposing it are one, teacher’s unions and public school districts, and they are opposing it because right now they have a virtual monopoly on education. I believe 91 percent of students go to public school and they feel threatened by these school choice programs because they see them as giving them new competitors.
That’s not to say that public school teachers oppose school choice. There are many who very much support it because they want what’s best for their students and they see students in their own classrooms who are struggling, but it’s really the representatives at the teacher’s unions and the people who are actually managing the public schools, the bureaucrats.
The other group I should mention, the big opponents for school choice are those who believe that school choice threatens the separation between church and state.
Evan: Yeah, that’s probably the biggest controversy here, because you would expect for the teachers union to oppose this for reasons that we could get into in the show, but one of the big sticking points because this is private school choice, is religion. You mentioned that in some of these models, maybe not all, religious schools are included.
Erica: That’s right.
Evan: You could have a situation where taxpayer money is going to a religious school. Now is that okay? I mean we have this idea that there’s a separation of church and state. We have the First Amendment which guarantees your freedom of religion, but also says that congress can not establish a state religion, so is this constitutional?
Erica: It is constitutional. It really breaks down to two questions, the federal constitution and state constitutions. The supreme court has already decided that it’s constitutional under the establishment clause which is where the concept of separation of church and state is in the federal constitution, in the First Amendment. That was in 2002 in Zelmen versus Simmons-Harris. There the court said that school choice programs don’t violate the establishment clause because they’re neutral. All they’re doing is giving parents a choice. No dollar of state money is going to wind up at a religious school absent the free and voluntary choice of parents.
Evan: Right, because the only reason the religious school would get money is if a child or parent, together or not, elect to chose the school and then that’s where the money gets shifted. Now that does bring up another concern though, and maybe why the teachers union is opposed, is this issue of funding. I mean yes 91 percent of students are in public schools and the funding in theory reflects that. A lot of funding goes to public schools. If students, because of public schools not doing well or for whatever reason, maybe they want to go to a religious school, if they start choosing not to go to a public school, you can call it competition, you could call it siphoning money away, is that a danger to the public school system?
There’s a lot of controversy about schools closing because not enough pupils, and if a kid leaves to go to a private school, that’s whatever it is, 30,000 dollars less that the school gets. I mean how would you address that concern which has certainly been a big one for the teacher’s union?
Erica: I’m glad you brought that up. Well first I should say I have never heard of this public school closing because of a school choice program, and they’ve been around for 26 years. It’s a common claim that we hear that these school choice programs are costing taxpayers money, that they’re taking money away from the public school, and there’s really no evidence of that at all. In fact, there’s been I think over a dozen studies showing that these programs actually save the state money.
Evan: How so?
Erica: Because when the state is educating a child in public school, it’s spending money to put them in there. I think on average the states spend 10,000 dollars every year per pupil. Some states it’s much higher, up to 20,000. When the child elects to leave a public school, first school choice program, the public school no longer has to spend that money. Instead the school choice program, let’s say it’s using state funds, is going to give them usually in the range of 3000 to 5000 dollars in scholarship money. You’re not going to usually see scholarships that are that much higher than that. That means 10,000 dollars the state doesn’t have to spend in the public school, and instead they’re giving a much smaller scholarship to pay to educate the child elsewhere. There’s no evidence to the idea that these programs are costing us that much money. In fact, they’re probably saving us money.