Back to School Shopping, Literally

The back-to-school shopping season is upon us. Americans are expected to spend more than $17 billion, or $527 per child, preparing for the school year. Parents will select gadgets and clothes in hopes of making the year a success. Merchants are blitzing the airwaves offering sales on everything from lunchboxes to laptops in hopes of scoring big during the year’s second biggest shopping season.

The back-to-school season testifies to the power of the free market and consumer choice, but it also highlights a major shortcoming: When it comes to the most important thing to determine a child’s academic success this year-his or her school-most parents have little or no choice at all.

Today most children attend a public school based on where they live. Families without the financial ability to move have little choice but to enroll their children in the assigned school. Of course, some families can afford to opt out of the public school system. The families of about one million children choose to forgo “free” public education and enroll their children in private schools, paying tuition in addition to the taxes they pay to support the local public schools. Another million students are home-schooled by their parents.

Over the past decade, reforms have given more parents the ability to choose their children’s schools. This year, more than 100,000 students will attend private schools thanks to school choice programs in a dozen states that make public education funds portable. Another million students will enroll in the 3,700 public charter schools across the nation. But the students participating in these school choice programs are still only a slim percentage of the nation’s 50 million students.

Imagine back-to-school season if all families had the power to select their children’s school. Parents would control the nearly $500 billion that is spent every year on public education in America. With this purchasing power, families would shop for the best schools, tutoring programs, and instructional tools for their children.

Schools, teachers, and other education providers would compete for parents’ business-just like banks compete for your checking business. They would compete to provide quality services that best address individual students’ needs. As in other markets, the most successful schools and education services would become models for others. Underperforming schools would have to shape up or risk closing their doors when families take their business elsewhere.

Critics of school choice claim that somehow elementary and secondary education is the one area of American life where competition and the free market can’t be trusted. Some argue that it would be wrong to subject the important public responsibility of public education to competition and consumer choice.

But growing evidence proves that school choice works. Where school choice policies have been implemented, parents’ satisfaction improves and students excel. There have been eight academic evaluations of school choice programs that award scholarships through lotteries. Each study found that students who won a scholarship to attend private school outperformed their peers who remained in public school.

But that’s not all. Academic research has found that competition due to school choice leads to public school improvement. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby studied the effects of a school choice program in Milwaukee that gives low-income students scholarships to attend private school. She found that the competition caused by school choice led threatened public schools to improve their performance.

The lesson is simple: When families can choose their children’s schools, the children do better academically and schools start to focus on providing a quality education to attract students.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Just imagine what back-to-school shopping would be like without choice and competition. If parents could purchase products from only one store, sales would end, product quality would deteriorate, and variety would vanish.

American students shouldn’t languish in a system that American shoppers wouldn’t tolerate.