Teacher unions can’t stop the push for choice

This week is National School Choice Week. While we don’t always comment on commemoratory weeks, we believe that the issue of school choice deserves more attention given the opportunity that various forms of choice – ranging from public charter schools to online learning to private alternatives – offer for improving opportunities for students from all backgrounds.

Californians have been looking for ways to improve public schools for decades, with the prime legislative focus on increasing taxpayer funding for traditional government schools. That approach has shown disappointing results. Between 2011 and 2019, California boosted its K-12 funding by 60 percent, yet overall student achievement didn’t improve.

That data came shortly before COVID-19. Most California public schools struggled to transition to at-home learning – and the powerful teachers’ unions dragged their feet on getting kids back to school. Post-pandemic test results have been abysmal, with poor kids suffering the worst from the missed schooling. Meanwhile, private and charter school students fared relatively well.

That disruptive experience sparked a wide-ranging rethinking of the education system by frustrated parents, even if lawmakers didn’t get the message. “K-12 education in America is experiencing a once-in-a-generation transformation, as tens of millions of parents rethink their children’s education,” noted the National School Choice Week organization’s new opinion survey.

Nearly 54 percent of parents said they are considering choosing a new school. Those numbers neared 65 percent for Black and Latino parents. Of course, not everyone is unhappy with their current public schools. The survey found “parents are eager to find better or supplementary learning environments for their children … even as two thirds … remain largely satisfied with the schools their children attend.” Competition doesn’t threaten public schools (except really bad ones), but rather lifts all boats.

California once led the nation in its embrace of charter schools – publicly funded schools that have more flexibility than traditional schools. Former Gov. Jerry Brown was a charter advocate and even started two successful charter schools, but Gov. Gavin Newsom has been less supportive of these alternatives and more under the sway of the California Teachers’ Association.

The governor signed a package of laws that make it more difficult for charters to expand and easier for school boards to reject them. Yet the recent survey showed that nearly half of all California parents “want more options for their children’s education, and most parents want more information about school choice options.”

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This makes sense. We all demand choice for every product and service – and few services are more important that education. Beyond the failure of the public schools to rise to the COVID-19 challenges, the state has long seen problems with our traditional public schools, which suffer from the same problems as any monopoly system – i.e., key decisions are made by politicians, unions and bureaucrats rather than “customers.”

In 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s system of teacher firing protections left many children – especially those in the poorest districts – in classrooms with “grossly ineffective” teachers. Higher courts ultimately rejected that ruling, but it reinforced the need for a more boisterous system of school choice.

Californians need to do more than tell pollsters that they support choice. They need to make their voices heard so that politicians get the message.

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