Let’s Create Opportunities for All Texas Students

by | Feb 15, 2023

Freedom enables opportunities. School choice creates more freedom for parents and students.

Opponents of school choice argue that, because private schools do not have to accept all students, vouchers will lead to two very different education systems. Few schools, they claim, will accept special needs students or children from poor families. Consequently, these students will have no alternative to government schools at the same time that those schools are operating with reduced funding. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. The fact that some may not have as many opportunities as others does not justify limiting other individual’s freedom of choice. And those opportunities are not as limited as school choice opponents would like us to believe.

Both history and the contemporary world provide examples of education opportunities for special needs children and students from poor families. Scholarships are the most obvious example. Those who want to expand the opportunities for such students are free to organize or donate to scholarship funds.

As one example, in 2008 Oprah Winfrey donated $365,000 to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. The next year she donated $1.5 million to the school, and in 2017 she gave $5 million. The school serves poor, inner-city children. Winfrey also established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The academy’s mission is to “provide a nurturing educational environment for academically gifted girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Other examples of educational opportunities abound. In colonial America education was a favorite form of philanthropy for Quakers, and the poor were allowed to attend without charge. In The Freeman, educator Robert Peterson writes:

Historical records, which are by no means complete, reveal that over one hundred and twenty-five private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers between 1740 and 1776. Instruction was offered in Latin, Greek, mathematics, surveying, navigation, accounting, bookkeeping, science, English, and contemporary foreign languages. Incompetent and inefficient teachers were soon eliminated, since they were not subsidized by the State or protected by a guild or union. Teachers who satisfied their customers by providing good services prospered. One schoolmaster, Andrew Porter, a mathematics teacher, had over one hundred students enrolled in 1776. The fees the students paid enabled him to provide for a family of seven.

These schools allowed colonial Americans to receive the education they desired without government intervention. The pursuit of profit motivated educators to provide the types of classes and the content that their customers wanted, not that demanded by public officials or pressure groups. The freedom of students permitted them to choose the schools that offered the courses they wanted, not those dictated by politicians and bureaucrats.

Everyone, including those who were marginalized at the time—the poor, blacks, women, and immigrants—had an abundance of educational opportunities. Peterson writes: “In 1767, there were at least sixteen evening schools, catering mostly to the needs of Philadelphia’s hard-working German population…. There were also schools for women, blacks, and the poor. Anthony Benezet, a leader in colonial educational thought, pioneered in the education for women and Negroes.” In short, if an individual—any individual—in colonial America desired an education, he or she had many options from which to choose.

James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle in England, provides an even more compelling example of education for the poor. Tooley conducted a two-year study of education among the poor in Nigeria, Kenya, China, Ghana, and India. His study focused on differences between government schools and private schools in the poorest areas of his selected cities—areas that lacked indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and paved roads. What he found was remarkable.

For example, in Hyderabad, India, 76 percent of all school children attend private schools. Despite the fact that government schools are available, most of the city’s poorest parents choose to send their children to private schools, even when they have to pay tuition. Even by Indian standards, the students come from poor households: The students in private schools in Hyderabad had a monthly income of less than $30 per working household member; this is two-thirds the average income of $46 per month in Hyderabad at the time. Tooley reported similar findings in the other cities and concluded: “[T]he poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.” Tooley’s findings dispel the myth that the poor require paternalistic government assistance in order to educate their children.

These examples show what is possible with a little ingenuity and freedom. Freedom enables opportunities. School choice creates more freedom for parents and students.

Students are not monolithic. They have a wide range of needs, desires, and interests. Nobody knows an individual child better than her parents. Her parents, not politicians and bureaucrats in Austin, should be making the decisions regarding her education. Her parents should be free to choose the school they deem best for their child. School choice enables parents to do so by providing alternatives to government schools; by restricting freedom of choice, the current system greatly reduces the number of viable opportunities for all Texas students.

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Update: True Freedom of Choice (2023.02.19)

When Gov. Greg Abbott recently iterated his support for school choice, the state’s teacher’s union argued that school choice already exists in Texas. However, there is a vast difference between the “choices” the union points to and true freedom of choice.

For example, one former teacher said,

The reality is there’s already a choice. Lubbock ISD is a perfect example of where kids can choose the type of school they want to go to, whether they want to focus on STEM or some other opportunity that may be available to them. [bold added]

The teacher didn’t address what a student should do if the Lubbock ISD doesn’t offer “some other opportunity” that the student desires. The fact is, students can only select from the alternatives the school district chooses to make available to them. And that is not true freedom of choice.

In and of itself, having alternatives to choose from is not freedom of choice. An armed robber presents you with two alternatives when he demands, “Your wallet or your life.” Hover, he has arbitrarily eliminated the alternative that you would prefer—retaining both your money and your life. In principle, the choices offered by the Lubbock ISD and the armed robber are the same. Both unilaterally and arbitrarily limit the available options. And both resort to coercion in the process. The robber uses a gun to attain your money regardless of your desires. Government schools use taxation to attain your money regardless of your desires.

True freedom of choice only exists when the alternatives available to us are not arbitrarily limited by others. When we are truly free to choose, the only restrictions on the available alternatives are those imposed by reality and the rights of others. Presenting us with false alternatives is not an example of freedom of choice.

School choice is not true freedom of choice, but it is a significant step in that direction.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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