Students need education pluralism

November 4, 2022

Voters in the upcoming election will be able to voice their opinion on current education trends, and according to some observers, education may be a key issue in November.

Whether it’s teaching U.S. history, protecting parents’ rights, creating more education choice policies in states, or shutting down schools during a pandemic, there are plenty of hotly debated issues in education policy.

What should parents and elected officials seek in such a divided landscape? Perhaps education pluralism has something to offer.

What is education pluralism?

Education pluralism is a policy environment that supports high-quality schools as varied as the people, values, needs and philosophies that exist in society, and it ensures that students have reasonable access to that variety of options.

Done right, this environment is a vibrant ecosystem of education options that reflects the pluralistic society in which we live.

Education pluralism includes public charter schools, virtual schools (public or private), magnet schools of various emphases, technical institutes, vocational schools, private religious schools, home schools (including pods), micro-schools, and district public schools. It also includes schools not yet envisioned. It ought to be seen a comprehensive range of options, one or more of which might meet the needs of various students.

The policies that promote education pluralism are broad and varied. Some examples include lifting public charter school enrollment caps and equalizing funding streams within district public schools; encouraging the establishment and growth of virtual schools of all kinds; offering school choice proposals like education savings accounts; educating students and families in the advantages of technical institutes and vocational schools; helping home-school families access high quality curriculum; and incentivizing a range of pedagogical approaches within district public schools.

Why is education pluralism an important objective?

Education pluralism is crucial for (1) encouraging student achievement, (2) engendering public trust from parents and voters, and (3) fulfilling schools’ civic mission.

Every child is different, and education ought to match the strengths, weaknesses, career goals, and character development needs of students. Likewise, every family has unique cultural, religious, financial and other dynamics, so education ought to reflect these realities too.

Achieving academic success while considering these individual, family and cultural characteristics requires education pluralism to meet students where they are. Equity in education – that is, giving students an education that factors in their background – is better achieved through a range of options rather than delivering the same mode of education to all students.

Furthermore, parents are different from each other. While parents are the primary educators in their children’s lives, they often choose professionals to instruct their children in a more formal way, most often in a traditional public school setting. The relationship between parents and educators impacts student success, which is why trust between parents and educators is important.

Unfortunately, trust between parents and educators/schools is not a given. A poll taken during the pandemic showed that just half of parents trust schools to keep their kids safe. More recent polling, even after most schools reopened after the pandemic, shows that trust in schoolteachers is down significantly.

Certainly, the pandemic caused serious disruption to many features of education, but this significant breakdown in trust may be due to the reality that there is no such thing as a value-neutral education. Every school makes decisions on what it prioritizes, teaches and inculcates. These choices reflect a set of values. When there is an overreliance on one type of education, and the values of that education diverge from parents’ values, ugly zero-sum wars boil over. The debates surrounding the pandemic, including school shutdowns and even masking, is a fitting example. Parents often felt like their concerns were unaddressed, and parent feedback in school board meetings on other controversial topics has even been met with hostility.

Rather than forcing one system and set of values on everyone, pluralism in education means schools can better reflect the values of their students’ parents – values which vary across different groups of parents. It is an optimal starting place for building trust between parents and the schools or educators they choose.

Further, education, as envisioned by the Founders, has an explicitly civic purpose. Education was seen as an important way to preserve the republic by instructing future citizens in the knowledge, skills and character necessary to uphold a free, self-governing society. Some argue that this civic mission is best accomplished through a uniform, public system of schools since it is a microcosm of society; however, pluralism does not have to diminish the civic mission of schools.

Interestingly, the majority of democracies globally, excluding the United States, offer robust education pluralism. Research comparing public schools and private schools shows that private schools perform better on multiple indicators of civic education. Pluralism is compatible with civic outcomes and democracy.

How does it differ from education choice policies?

Education pluralism is not to be conflated with education choice policies. Choice policies are the means whereby families can choose a school outside of their district public school, usually through a state program. The program may be open enrollment, education savings accounts or vouchers. Each of these programs gives families the opportunity to choose among schools, but none of them contemplates the question that is the priority of education pluralism: Is the array of education options governed and funded in a way to make a parent’s ability to choose a school truly meaningful?

Education pluralism envisions a state and local policy environment that produces a diverse variety of high-quality schools from which a parent can choose. Therefore, choice policies become one element of pluralism. But the significance of choice policies increases as more choices become available.

As one scholar put it, choice policies “argue for individual exceptions to the uniform delivery model – [they] assume[] the norm of uniformity, even while arguing against it.”

Pluralism, on the other hand, seeks to change the norm. It envisions a wide range of high-quality delivery models and seeks reform of regulatory and funding policies to provide for them.

To what degree does Utah have education pluralism?

Utah, to its credit, has a variety of education options for families. These options include 1,007 district public schools, 140 public charter schools, 36 public virtual schools, 42 public vocational schools and more than 160 private schools.

The Legislature has also created scholarship programs for students with special needs, giving families who qualify access to special education options outside of district public schools. However, Utah has rejected legislative efforts to expand this program to let other families get public funding for a wider set of education options as well.

What is the opportunity?

Utah’s student population is more diverse than the state’s population – 30 percent of its students are students of color (whereas those identifying as a minority in the state is closer to 22 percent, as of 2019). In addition, Utah has a unique religious community. Certainly, there is room for education pluralism to reflect that diversity.

To start, Utah could seek out better choice policies, like an education savings account program for students from low-income homes or those going to underperforming schools.

In Arizona, the (now universal) education savings account program sparked the growth of a variety of education providers, tutors and vendors to meet a more comprehensive range of needs, and the list is growing as parents ask for it.

In this way, the freedom to choose created the space for education pluralism to thrive. Utah has taken some significant steps in this direction and would benefit from prioritizing education pluralism in the state.

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