Commentary

Empowering Parents Through School Choice

By Philip Vassallo
October 20, 2000
School-choice initiatives continue to surface around the country, most notably in California and Michigan’s ballot boxes this November. Those passionately battling over school choice realize that an ultimate victory on either side of the issue will determine the course of education reform well into the future. But there’s no longer any debate over whether parents want choice (they do) and whether they are more satisfied with their child’s education once empowered to exercise choice (they are).

Mounting research shows that parents both want and know how to make informed choices for their children’s education. Studies from school-choice experiments, including the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Dayton PACE Program, New York School Choice Scholarships Program, San Antonio CEO Horizon Scholarship Program, and Washington Scholarship Fund, show that choice can be an engine for parental involvement.

These studies indicate that parents with children in choice programs attend more school activities, volunteer more in their children’s schools, communicate more with teachers, and help more with homework.

On virtually every measure tested – school safety, discipline, instructional quality, teacher skills, respect for teachers, class size, and school facilities – parents are overwhelmingly more satisfied with their chosen school than with their given school. Parents also are more likely to re-enroll their child in the chosen school because of their satisfaction with the program.

Americans want to see choice implemented. A recent survey by Portrait of America found that 52 percent of adults believe that introducing competition by allowing parents to select schools would do more to improve education in America than spending money. Similarly, 54 percent favor school vouchers, and 59 percent say that allowing parents a choice in school selection is more likely to produce accountability than oversight by a school board. Those findings are not surprising. For years, polls have shown the vast majority of voters favor school choice programs. Even parents who say they wouldn’t change schools if they could believe parents should have that opportunity.

Why should the desires of parents matter? Because researchers, school administrators, teachers, and parents all agree that the more parents get involved with education, the more likely their children will excel in school

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The public education system – not public school teachers or administrators – is the greatest barrier to parental involvement. It interferes with the parents ’ right and responsibility to seek the education they believe is best for their children, and the monopolistic practice of directing all education funding to public schools has fostered indifference among parents, many of whom feel little reason to pay attention when their choices are made for them.

If all parents had the financial ability to choose their child’s school, those schools would survive only if they placed students’ interests before all else. Teachers and administrators would have to improve their schools through the healthy competition that would evolve in a choice system. More important, school choice places higher expectations on parents.

Today, it is fashionable to hold parents responsible for cultivating their child’s educational and social progress, but parents have limited authority outside the home to fulfill that duty. Choice frees parents from the shackles of bureaucratic control and increases their ability to participate in their child’s overall development.

A universal market system has yet to be launched, but its time has come. Such a system befits our nation’s democratic ideals and responds to critical research linking parental involvement to educational excellence. State legislators – with the support of the president from his bully pulpit – should enact policies that return control of education to parents through universal tuition tax credits and vouchers. The adoption of such measures promises to transform American education by increasing parental involvement and giving students the competitive schools they deserve.

This essay by Philip Vassallo, an educational consultant, is adapted from “More than Grades: How Choice Boosts Parental Involvement and Benefits Children,” forthcoming from the Cato Institute.