Three kids walking in autumn autumn beech forest. Kids are wearing backpacks and are either hiking or going to school.

Unsure about school choice? Here’s why it matters

By Davi Johnson

This week is National School Choice Week. President Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is an adamant proponent of school choice and has brought significant attention to the topic. Many fear these ensuing waves; others are looking forward to the ride; and some may not be sure what to think about school choice. The following is for those who find themselves in the “unsure” category.

School choice is a broad term for allowing parents to choose how their child receives an education. That might be through public, charter, private or home schooling, etc. As you learn about school choice and decide where you stand, here are positive school choice results for your consideration.

  • Test scores increase – Studies show that areas that have allowed more choice in schools have shown significant improvements to reading and math test scores.
  • Parent Satisfaction Increases –While 84 percent of American children attend public school, only 36 percent of parents say that would be their top choice.
  • Teacher Satisfaction – Teachers in public schools are required to comply with certain teaching standards, leaving some of them dissatisfied with the lack of freedom.
  • Graduation rates – Voucher systems in D.C. and Milwaukee (vouchers are one method of allowing parents choice in schools) showed an 18 to 21 percent increase in graduation rates.
  • Crime rates decrease – Children in Milwaukee that were a part of a voucher system in 2005 showed 11 years later a 79 percent reduction in felonies, a 93 percent reduction in drug offenses, and an 87 percent reduction in theft by 2016.
  • Education spending decrease – Education reform could save state and federal government. Public school expenditures per student average 70 percent more than private school tuition costs.

These benefits are noteworthy on their own, but one of the most important outcomes of school choice is that children get an education suited for them – the kind that would allow them to succeed in their own unique way. Allowing parents to choose will help children meet their God-given potential.

School ChoiceSources:

A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are sitting at their desk and are taking a test in class. One boy is smiling and looking at the camera.

Op-ed: After the election: A new education vision

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Human beings are magnificent. We ask, wonder, reason, reflect and change. We are created to learn. As Aristotle put it, “All men by nature desire to know.”

With a divisive election behind us, we have an opportunity to move toward substantive discussion and elevated dialogue about principles and policies in our communities, especially regarding how we approach education.

While real debate about how to improve public education was lost amid both sides’ extreme campaign rhetoric, Americans continued to live the realities of our education system. They experienced, and continue to experience, excessive testing, one-size-fits-all classrooms, a lack of alternative options, teachers leaving the profession after only a few years on the job, inequities in access to quality schools, low scores on national and international tests, and heavy-handed federal initiatives.

Behind these realities is one ultimate question: Is our education system designed to encourage the learning of children, each of whom has unique interests and learning needs? It’s telling that, perhaps in answer to this question, enthusiastic education reformers exist on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.

The promise of a renewed education dialogue rests on two main ideas: (1) education requires that we meet the unique needs of the child; and (2) education calls for the empowerment of parents, students and taxpayers to create learning paths as unique as each student.

Noam Chomsky said, “A public education system is based on the principle that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education.” But what type of education? America doesn’t need the destruction of public education, but its transformation. Every kid down every street should have the opportunity to learn in a way that unlocks his or her innate potential. Anything less is a misuse of public funds.

To make education work for the individual, states should pursue a flexible education spending policy that allows parents to use their child’s state funds to purchase a variety of academic options like tutoring, textbooks, curriculum, exams, tuition or therapies. It should first prioritize students from families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, children from families experiencing intergenerational poverty; special-education students; children who have been adopted or are in foster care; or students residing on Native American reservations.

States should pursue local control through tools like “assessment choice,” where districts choose tests that best fit the needs of their students and their demographic realities from a menu of approved assessments. Excessive testing, data privacy and the influence of assessments on instruction worry many parents. The level of government closest to the student’s family — where parents are empowered, not sidelined — should determine which tests students take.

Education policies should break arbitrary barriers to learning. Instead of first seeking to raise taxes, educators should empower students to progress at their individual pace — the philosophy behind “competency-based education.” It’s worth rethinking grade levels, the Carnegie Unit, the classroom, the role of technology and the relationship between funding and enrollment. Education leaders should be investing in the ideas of the future, rather than being content to remain invested in the ideas of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do … he only holds the key to his own secret.” Respecting the pupil is our vision.

Achieving a transformation requires from everyone the best creative, intellectual and interpersonal efforts. Most importantly, it requires leaders and engaged citizens willing to stand up in their own communities and reject a politics of strident voices, character assassinations, cloakroom deals and corruption. We will need space for open conversation and elevated dialogue, the seedbed for great ideas.

All human beings are created with the ability to learn, the desire to grow, the potential to improve and a purpose to accomplish extraordinary things. Education policy and dialogue ought to reflect these truths. And if we each engage in an elevated dialogue about education within our communities, it will be possible.

Little boy with backpack on his way to school / kindergarten.

Op-ed: Utahns will invest in education, but not in same old system

Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The results of a recent survey from Envision Utah have been referenced as a sign that Utahns don’t understand public school funding. Some are pointing to that reading of the survey to make the case for raising income taxes on Utahns.

From a strategic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. How do you convince policymakers, who have repeatedly been re-elected on a platform of protecting taxpayers from higher taxes, to take more money from taxpayers? One answer: Tell elected officials that voters are uninformed and don’t understand what they’re voting about.

But rather than question voters’ intelligence when it comes to education funding, we should first question our own understanding of the issue, and think about the environment in which voters find themselves.

According to the survey, 71 percent of Utahns believe that K-12 education funding is too low. And yet, 50 percent of Utahns are either unwilling or unsure about their willingness to pay for education funding.

Information could be at the root of this outcome, but it is just as likely that Utahns hold serious reservations about what is happening in education.

Our public education system is at a crossroads. We must decide, through our elected leaders, whether we want public schools that are invested in the past or are investing in the future. This decision is largely one of focus.

Being invested in the past means focusing on keeping our schools firmly in their 20th century model, designed for factories and farms, not for unique individuals in a high-tech, highly collaborative world. This leads to so-called reforms that follow a familiar pattern: raise taxes, spend more taxpayer dollars, adopt centralized government education programs and keep unions happy. These ideas appease powerful political interests, but are proven failures in producing the education outcomes and academic achievement that Utahns want for their children.

Investing in the future means focusing on meeting the unique needs of children. That requires exploring the possibilities for public education in the 21st century, including innovations in teaching and technology that can unlock every child’s innate desire to know and understand. It asks more of education reform — to not simply rely on money, but to entertain bold new ideas that break the status quo. It also leads to the conclusion that centralized academic decision-making is strikingly odd in a world where you can customize everything important in your life — from your diet to your doctor to your Netflix recommendations.

Utahns see many current and would-be education leaders investing in the future by embracing opportunities to promote engaged learning through innovation. But they also see these leaders and our public schools being held back by those who seem satisfied to remain invested in the past. In that situation, it is no wonder that Utahns would believe public school funding is too low, and yet be hesitant to pay more for an education system that balks at leaving behind a structure that is becoming irrelevant.

Are Utahns willing to pay more for that system when they recognize its success is being held up notwithstanding the money they invest? Not likely.

If we are serious about improving public education outcomes in Utah, then we should start asking courageous questions about our system instead of blaming voters for not understanding the issues. Are we invested in the past, or are we investing in the future? Getting the right answer to that question will have a far greater effect on positive public school outcomes than raising Utahns’ income taxes.

Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst at Sutherland Institute.

Alimony, audits and adoption: family issues heard during Utah interim meetings

During last week’s interim day meetings, the legislature heard three family issues.

The Judiciary Interim Committee listened to testimony about reforming alimony (brought to the Committee by Representative Fred Cox, R-West Valley City) which has been a Sutherland Institute priority. The proposal would allow courts to consider whether one spouse broke up a marriage in determining an award of support from one spouse to the other. This is a matter of basic justice: a person who did nothing to break up a marriage should not have to pay the spouse who did; a spouse should also not be put into a bad financial position by a spouse who destroys a marriage. The committee seemed open to the commonsense principle the reform would advance. Sutherland will continue working on this issue. Read more

Parents’ rights in interim committee hearing

On Wednesday, June 20th, the Judiciary Interim Committee of the Legislature will hear testimony about the appropriate balance between protecting children at risk in their homes and preserving families. The study is part of an important bill, House Bill 161, approved in the 2012 session.

It appears the discussion will be centered on a careful audit of the state’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). That audit raises some important questions and makes valuable recommendations. For instance:  Read more

Chicken nuggets and government paternalism

Did you hear about this story? Apparently a preschool in North Carolina seized the lunch of a 4-year-old girl because it didn’t meet USDA nutrition requirements. The lunch her mother had packed contained a “turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice.”

The school provided a replacement lunch for the girl (at a charge of $1.25), but she ate only three chicken nuggets.

It appears that government paternalism is rising to new heights. This case adds an interesting twist to Ronald Reagan’s quip, “The 10 most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

We have written extensively on the dangers of paternalism. You can read some of our thoughts here.

News roundup: Remove obese children from their homes?


Child custody and obesity

Should government take children from their parents if the children become obese? In Ohio, parents lost custody of their 8-year-old son because he weighed more than 200 pounds. The boy was placed in foster care.

Officials argue that his sleep apnea problem, possibly related to his obesity, is imminently dangerous. The family’s public defender will argue that the boy is not in imminent danger.

Where do we draw the line on when government steps in to “protect” children from their parents? Utah has seen its fair share of cases in which DCFS, without just cause, has removed or attempted to remove children from homes, including this case. Read more

Tables turned: UHSAA to defend itself in court


In the latest dispute between parents and the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA), Ronald and Susan Mika, parents of Eric Mika, are suing the UHSAA for denying Eric the opportunity to play basketball this year, even though he transferred schools for personal, non-athletic reasons.

You can read about the background of Eric’s situation here, here and here, and you can read the lawsuit here.

This case is one among a plethora demonstrating the irrationality of the UHSAA’s transfer rule for student-athletes and general administrative approach in addressing transfers and eligibility. We could recall numerous arguments to support this assertion, but, above all, we should remember that primarily parents – not the state, not public schools and certainly not the UHSAA – should determine where their children attend school and for what reasons. Read more

‘Education savings accounts’: a game-changing idea


For you parents out there with students in high school, how would you like it if you were given a chunk of money to pay for the best high school education possible for your child, with the flexibility to take the best math class from one public school and the best English class in another public school? Further, how would you like it if, after your child’s customized education were paid for, you were allowed to keep any leftover money to pay for college?

This personalized, parent-centered approach to public education may be coming soon to a public school near you. Read more

Ogden rally raw footage, empowering parents, NCLB


Today in Ogden, an estimated 400 people protested the Ogden School District’s decision to forgo collective bargaining in favor of a contract made on its own terms. You can see footage of the protest here, taken by Alexis Young, Sutherland’s multimedia reporter:


Notice the signs that read “Teachers Are Not The Problem.” We agree. The problem in Ogden is not the teachers. The problem, at least one of them, is that the teachers union as an organization has not been able to reach an agreement with the district for several years running and is now concerned about losing more power. Read more