This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of “A Nation at Risk.” Released by Ronald Reagan’s education secretary Terrel Bell and prompted by the international underperformance of American students, the report challenged schools to make dramatic improvements. Education policy was to focus on standards, accountability, and equity. Yet after four decades and countless new initiatives, the record shows that choice is a critical, but neglected, factor for success.
Every state has some form of academic standards, but these alone have not improved student achievement or closed achievement gaps. The standards movement began to take shape in 1989, when President George H. W. Bush convened governors at the Charlottesville Education Summit to discuss educational programming. Bill Clinton would later introduce his education initiative, “Goals 2000,” when he became president in 1992, requiring states to make high school graduation requirements more rigorous. The most recent installment came in the form of Common Core, whose prescriptions were approved by 40 states only to be repealed by many.
The push for accountability and equity, meantime, ramped up in 2001, when closing the achievement gap became a federal mandate in George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law. The policy obliged schools to show “adequate yearly progress” on statewide reading and math assessments for all students and to close the gap between certain subgroups. Schools failing to meet these objectives were sanctioned. The Obama administration then mandated that states adopt Common Core standards and their own accountability measures in order to receive Race to the Top Program funding.
At the end of this 40-year effort, what has changed? Compared with other countries, the U.S. is not gaining academically. Domestically, gaps between racial and income groups have not just persisted but widened. In fact, student test scores in math and reading fell to their lowest levels in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. If the U.S.’s decentralized approach to education is going to be an asset, we need to learn what works and what doesn’t. Though states would seem to be a perfect laboratory for such healthy experimentation, things have often not worked out that way.
Our recent book, The Economics of Equity in K-12 Education, establishes best practices for states and local governments. Besides the family, the local community has the most significant influence over a child’s education and future. Local stakeholders make decisions about teacher pay, teacher training, curriculum, programming for local students, and budgets. These decisions vary by district.
Yet national trends have further stifled progress on local education policy. Our research finds that school closures led to a deterioration in parental mental health that ultimately affected students—even beyond the learning losses arising from remote instruction—and that many families decided to switch permanently to homeschooling, even after schools began reopening. That so many families decided to homeschool highlights the increasing preference for school choice. Indeed, until policymakers confront the unambiguous evidence that school choice can improve learning outcomes and close the achievement gap, they will repeat the same mistakes we’ve seen over the last 40 years.
What defense do children have from school boards, unions, or other forces that fail to look out for their best interests? A child’s education is one of the most critical indicators of future success. Families need options, especially now that the pandemic has subsided. More states are concluding that school choice is necessary; nationally, we need to expand the role of choice in educational policy. Choice is the only policy that can address our biggest challenge: helping a decentralized system meet the needs of our pluralistic nation’s population.