When School Choice Is Too Little, Too Late

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For decades, we’ve relied on the K–12 public schools to ensure opportunity for all children and to develop strong future generations of Americans. Yet despite years of “school reform” along with much-increased spending, achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children have remained persistently large. Indeed, growing armies of school reformers agree on just one thing: We’re still leaving way too many children behind.

A parade of reform initiatives – higher standards, smaller schools, better teachers, more accountability, Common Core – have come and gone, leaving notably minor impact in their wake. Now the next strategy is moving onto center stage: “choice,” highlighted last week as National School Choice Week carried out its 2018 “celebration of opportunity in education.”

Families who can afford “choice” have always had it, paying for private school or moving to neighborhoods that have schools they want their children to attend. But school choice advocates argue that all parents, regardless of income, should be empowered to choose the learning environments that best enable their child to “learn and grow,” gaining the skills and knowledge needed for a successful, productive life. As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stressed in remarks to a recent American Enterprise Institute conference on federal reform: “Equal access to a quality education should be a right for every American and every parent should have the right to choose how their child is educated.”

“Choice” includes an expanding range of policies that delink a family’s home address from the publicly funded education their child has access to, allowing parents to choose their child’s school regardless of family income or where they live. Starting with magnet schools in the 1970s, choice policy has grown to include charter schools, school vouchers, homeschooling, online learning and most recently, Education Savings Accounts.

Often described as choice’s revolutionary “new frontier,” ESAs are a marked departure from previous policy because they promote education choice rather than school choice, providing funds that parents can use to fully customize learning experiences for their children. By giving parents direct control over public dollars spent, ESAs aim to increase families’ access to a much broader spectrum of education options, maximizing parental power over all aspects of their children’s learning and development.

All but one, that is. ESA proponents advocate parental control over all aspects of a child’s education – except the age of the child when that education starts. Even on choice’s most radical frontier, an entrenched vestige of K–12 schooling remains unchallenged: that the crucial learning needed to “live a life of purpose and meaning” begins at age four or five.

Yet a growing body of scientific research has established that the very bedrock of children’s lifelong potential is laid in the first years of life. A broad set of essential skills and abilities begin developing in children’s very first months, build over time and are critical determinants of school and workplace success. It’s true that schooling starts several years into children’s lives. But education begins at birth. And for many children, the education opportunities they most need to succeed occur even before they can walk.

In fact, for millions of children, the “achievement gap” neither originates in the K–12 schools nor can be closed there. Gaps between higher- and lower-income children have been observed among children as young as nine-months old. By 18 months, toddlers from low-income families can already be several months behind their more advantaged peers in language development. One widely cited study found that by age three, children with college-educated parents had vocabularies as much as three times larger than those of children whose parents did not complete high school – a gap so big, researchers concluded, that even the best intervention programs could, at most, keep it from growing larger.

So millions of children “arrive at the schoolhouse door, already far behind.” Under half of low-income five-year-olds enter school ready to learn; some are up to two years behindtheir more advantaged peers. And subsequent schooling rarely closes those initial gaps.

Indeed, the very design of the public schools now leaves large numbers of children behind every year, by failing to heed what science shows and parents know: The most crucial years of learning and development occur long before children enter formal schooling. The bottom line is that for many children, school choice is just too little too late.

Our nation’s K–12 system is predicated on a past world in which children’s essential early foundation was largely laid at home. But today, the majority of American parents have to work outside the home to make ends meet. That means that millions of children are now spending a large proportion of their earliest years in the care of people other than their parents.

And while we’ve long viewed school as where children learn, for young children wherever they are is a learning environment – whether home, childcare, or grandma’s house. We now know that the quality of those environments is as important as school quality for children’s long-term success. That’s why real choice must start at birth: enabling parents to make sure their child’s foundation is built right in the first place, not mandating that they wait until their child reaches a government-defined “starting gate,” years into life and already very far behind.

For many parents, the power they need more than anything is to ensure their child enters kindergarten ready to succeed. Only when we empower them to advance their children’s healthy learning and development during the most crucial period of human development will we give them the choice that matters most.