James V. Shuls

Many people who have (and use) the resources to choose their own child's school nevertheless oppose programs that make school choice available to all families. In this series, I have been discussing four reservations these parents cite in their opposition to government-sponsored private school choice programs. In my last post, I discussed whether school choice programs hurt students left behind, school districts, and the community. Today, I look at a different reservation—control.

Reservation Number 2: School choice gives the public less control of the school system.

Local control of public schools is as American as apple pie and baseball. In the vast majority of U.S. school districts, governance is of the people. Citizens in the local school district elect school board members. The citizens control the school system. Some worry that school choice would strip local taxpayers of this ability. Is this true? Just as is the case in considering finances, the simple answer is yes. In most school choice systems, whether public charter schools or private school choice programs, citizens do not have the ability to elect school board members. Here again, we must consider what this means.

Let's first consider the current system where you and I can elect school board members. Say you are upset with something, or you want the curriculum changed (as I have in the past). What are your options? First, you can, and should, address the issue with the teacher. If this does not resolve the issue, you approach the principal and work your way up the chain of command—principal, assistant superintendent or district coordinator, superintendent, etc. Finally, you may approach the school board. When you bring your petition to the school board, it is not uncommon for them to grant you three minutes to speak at a public hearing. If you are lucky, they may take up the issue for further discussion.

Chances are you will not be very successful in getting the school district to change policy (So far I'm batting .000 on my complaints). If you are dedicated, and educated, enough, you may run for a position on the school board. You will have to hit the pavement and participate in local events to get up your name recognition. Let's then say you get yourself elected to the board. Now, you have to convince a majority of the board members to vote your way on the issue.

How long has this process taken you? Probably years. And what have you gained? You have just managed to foist your will on the remainder of the students and parents in the school district, many of whom may disagree with you. As I have written elsewhere, our current system invites conflict because it is a winner takes all system.

While the current system puts the power into the hands of citizens, the average citizen actually possesses very little power to exact any meaningful change.

Now, let's consider a school choice system. In charter and private schools, most boards are self-appointed and the board members may or may not be from your local community. Some schools may have parent advisory committees, but they often do not determine policy within the school. In this system, you lose your ability to elect board members; but you gain something else. You gain the ability to leave without having to move or pay for tuition. If the school isn't meeting your needs, you can take your child to another school. This places tremendous pressure on the school to be attentive to your needs.

Right now, can you name all of the members of your local school board. No? OK, now name one or two great schools in or around your community that you would like your kids to go to. I'd wager more people could do the latter.

By switching to a school choice system, we lose control at the ballot box and gain control in the classroom. That seems like a good trade-off. 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.