A new study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation is a reminder that the most persuasive argument in favor of school choice is not the promise of higher test scores, the beneficial effects of competition, or even an escape hatch from failing public schools—it’s the power of choice to make a more satisfying range of school cultures and curriculum available than traditional public schools can accommodate.
For years, wonkish arguments for school choice mostly revolved around enhanced performance. Researchers and policymakers have long built the case for (or against) choice based on test scores or other measurable metrics to demonstrate that choice “works.” The rapid growth of charter schools, for example, has long been framed as a moral imperative: a lifeboat to rescue students from failing schools, and a means of pressuring traditional public schools to improve or lose students to competition. More recently, some have offered choice as a means of disarming combatants in our ongoing “culture wars.” This train of thought brings us a little closer to putting school culture and curriculum at the center of the case for choice, but it still treats those things as a means, not an end in itself.
These common arguments for choice are lost on those actually doing the choosing. An analysis of the growth of classical charter schools in Texas by Albert Cheng and Cassidy Syftestad, suggests that parents are choosing those schools because of the intrinsic appeal of an education for their children grounded in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. The pair surveyed 431 parents with children enrolled in Texas classical charter schools and convened focus groups for 25 of them to discuss their educational priorities for their children and what they liked or disliked about their child’s school. They found that “parents’ educational priorities aligned with the priorities of classical education,” which has seen a big spike in demand in Texas and elsewhere. Parents expressed “strong desires for their children to grow in wisdom and virtue,” they explain.