Cato’s Andrew Coulson says that the success of homeschooled students in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee shows market-based education is superior to public schooling. There are several obvious problems with this conclusion. Most obviously, making systemic arguments based on the examples of a few outliers is a fool’s game. Spelling bee success, while laudable, tells us little about how children are faring on other indicators relevant to future life outcomes. Coulson also oversells the extent to which even a completely free market can customize learning to students’ individual interests, competitive drives, and abilities. One of the reasons I support greater educational choice is the potential for greater diversity and customization, but market pressures will still exert some of the same homogenizing force on schools that school boards and regulation currently do. Obviously, homeschooling allows even greater customization, but homeschool families, when we account for the opportunity costs of parent time and other hidden costs, often invest much more in their children’s education than even high-cost public and private schools.
But here’s an interesting thing: Evan O’Dorney, the Bee’s top finisher, who Coulson refers to as a “home schooler,” is actually a student of Venture School, a public alternative school run by the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. While most of students’ learning is independent and/or home-based, they attend the school in person and meet with the public school’s teachers weekly, and also take state accountability assessments like other California public school students.
The point here isn’t to play gotcha with Coulson: It’s that innovative public schools, including both district-run and charter schools, can and are expanding choice and diversity within public education, and they’re doing it with transparency and public accountability for their performance (something that remains shockingly lacking in both private education and too many public school systems). It’s not enough, because of state policies that continue to restrict the supply of charter schools; a culture in too many school district and state education bureaucracies that’s averse to choice; and the sheer fact that creating new, high-quality schools of choice, particularly for disadvantaged youngsters, is back-breaking work (and it’s also something that has to happen to make meaningful, high-quality choice a reality for most students regardless of whether it’s offered by public/charter or private schools). But there’s tremendous untapped potential for increasing choice and diversity within public education, a strategy that I believe ultimately has far more promise than tax credits or vouchers.