State laws and constitutions guarantee all children in the United States the right to a publicly funded education. That doesn’t mean a right only to a public school education. The Supreme Court has recognized, in cases such as Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and Plyler v. Doe, that states have broad authority to provide education through multiple public and private avenues, so long as all children have access to a basic education, regardless of race, sex, immigration status, and other constitutionally protected factors.

For American teachers’ unions, however, state education mandates mean funding public schools only, excluding all other taxpayer-funded options. This self-serving mythology seems to say that it is impossible to consider any other means of improving student outcomes until all public education dollars get poured into the public school system. This narrative facilitates union efforts to hide and excuse the poor performance of some public school teachers. It’s also wrong on the facts.

Contrary to the teachers’ unions’ claims, private school tuition support doesn’t come at the expense of traditional public schools. If a student opts to attend a private school, the money that would have paid for a public school education for that student instead goes to the school that educates them. The amount of that support does not exceed the school’s tuition costs, which, in most cases, would be much less than what the public school system has spent to educate the student, resulting in taxpayer savings. An analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute determined that, for every public school student in Chicago who transfers to a private school by means of an Invest in Kids scholarship, the state saves nearly $12,100.

Consider the argument from opponents of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on student loans and affirmative action. They say that they want to achieve equity through expanded higher-education opportunities. Yet the higher-education system is a model of government-supported school choice: 57 percent of students from four-year private nonprofit institutions graduated with student debt. The federal government guarantees much of that debt. Why, then, should supporters of this system oppose K-12 school choice, especially when it targets low-income families?

In an analysis of voucher programs, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found “overwhelming evidence that competition helps public schools.” Many U.S. states have empowered localities to replace underperforming public schools with proven models that promote competition and parental choice. Rather than continue to direct limited funding into traditional public schools, state and local policymakers should follow the lead of these states and devote resources to alternative education models with proven track records.

The “renaissance” and “innovation” school models, for example, partially liberate schools from restrictions found in collective-bargaining contracts with teachers’ unions. These are usually (but not exclusively) charter schools, in which school leaders have autonomy over most or all day-to-day operations, including staffing, curriculum, budget, calendar, class schedule, and teacher skill development.

Critically, renaissance and innovation schools remain neighborhood schools; area students are not displaced. Students outside the area can enroll only if surplus seats are available, further expanding parental choice. As public institutions, renaissance and innovation schools abide by state and federal laws, including those guaranteeing equal rights, nondiscrimination, health, and safety, as well as district student-performance goals.

What’s more, public school districts nationwide routinely contract private schools for special education and other alternative school services. If the local school district cannot offer these specialized services, parents can enroll their child in an appropriate private school at public expense. Parochial and private schools could likewise register as contract school providers. In the important 2022 case Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court declared that public funding of religious schools is constitutional, even when they use public funds for religious instruction. The Establishment Clause thus poses no barrier to implementing private and religious contract schools.

Though they deliver great public benefits, these alternatives face relentless opposition from teachers’ unions like the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU). In recent months, the CTU has pushed to cap the number of, and enrollment in, charter schools and to limit charter renewals to two or three years. The uncertainty around renewals will make it much harder for charters to recruit teachers, retain students, and finance capital improvements. Educational quality will suffer as charter school staff are forced to focus more time and resources on the renewal process.

The CTU is urging lawmakers to continue to protect the centralized command structure that allocates only 57 percent of the roughly $30,000 the district spends per pupil to local schools. While much of the remainder provides for citywide services like school psychologists, social workers, engineers, and custodians, it also finances the central administration bureaucracy and the latest district-wide programs and initiatives. This antiquated model gives maximum power to restrictive teachers’ union agreements that severely limit the use of the dollars allocated to local schools.

At the CTU’s urging, the Chicago Board of Education announced in March that it would end enrollment-based school funding. A new formula will instead provide funding based on schools’ “need.” It’s a thinly veiled attempt to protect union jobs after severe enrollment drops at the city’s public schools.

Consider Manley Career Academy High School, on Chicago’s West Side. Built for  1,000 students, it enrolled only 78 students in 2023, nearly 70 percent of them chronically absent. It has a staff of 27, or about one for every three students, and spends $45,000 per student. Only 2.4 percent of Manley students read at grade level. Fredrick Douglass Academy High School, also on the West Side, had 561 students in 2007–08. As of last November, it had 33 enrolled, a drop of about 94 percent.

These are not outliers. A third of all Chicago Public Schools buildings (163) are half empty. The 25 least-filled buildings have 25 percent or fewer of the students they were built to accommodate. Most of these schools are failing to educate the students who remain, despite extraordinarily high teacher-to-student ratios. In a recent poll, the lack of student learning topped the list of Chicagoans’ concerns about public schools.

What does the CTU’s alternative vision of educational innovation look like? So-called community schools, which expand the scope of government services offered to students, including mental health, academic tutoring, before- and after-school programming, subsidized meals, and more. The union claims that these schools meet the needs of students, families, and local communities. Of course, expanded services means more school funding and more opportunities for the union to fill more roles, thus expanding its influence. The Biden administration has endorsed this model.

In Chicago, 20 “sustainable community schools” are currently operating, according to the CTU, which is using teacher contract negotiations to push for funding for 180 more. The Illinois Policy Institute has shown that these schools are not educating their students: only 13 percent of third- through eighth-graders, and a vanishing 4 percent of eleventh graders, read at grade level.

Far from adding accountability, this union-backed model covers up for the poor performance of students, teachers, and schools by maintaining certain staff levels and supports regardless of enrollment decline, and by de-emphasizing testing. The community-schools model perpetuates the practice of social promotion—passing unprepared children to the next grade level—which downplays the importance of test results when assessing students, teachers, and their schools in favor of a softer assessment system. Attacks on selective-enrollment schools in cities like Chicago and New York are part of the broader effort to de-emphasize testing.

By contrast, public charter schools and private schools face real accountability. If a charter school fails to perform to the specifications in its charter, including meeting enrollment targets, it loses funding and can lose the right to operate. It’s therefore unsurprising that Chicago charters, like charters nationally, perform better than traditional public schools. Likewise, if a private school falters, parents stop paying tuition and go elsewhere. Selective-enrollment schools’ emphasis on testing also stands squarely in the way of efforts to decouple student outcomes and consequences, which is why they have recently come under attack.

The public should not buy the unions’ hype about sustainable community schools. The CTU showed its true colors when its leaders denied poor families access to education during the pandemic, keeping Chicago schools closed for 77 consecutive weeks, even walking out on students as late as 2022 to protest in-class learning. With the emergency long behind us, they shouldn’t be allowed to deny families educational choices.

Moreover, giving families more options does nothing to prevent traditional public schools from incorporating any of the beneficial elements of the community-school model. If successful, parents will want to send their children to those schools. If not, parents will have options available to meet their children’s best interests.

Expanding choice and competition should be at the heart of any genuinely progressive educational agenda. School choice would allow all parents, regardless of income, to send public education dollars to the school that best suits their child’s needs. Communities could select public school models that best address the needs of families in the community.

No amount of extra funding can correct the failures of monopolistic, union-dominated public schools. It’s time to free America’s children from this regressive and unfair education system.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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