This article was originally posted by Discourse Magazine for National School Choice Week.
Artificial scarcity is keeping students and families from getting the abundant educational experience they deserve.
As Utah State University researcher Will Rinehart observed recently in these pages, “scarcity is a serious public policy problem,” but “a good deal of it is self-inflicted.” Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in our education system, where abundant resources are being left untapped, walled off or otherwise simply squandered—all in the service of progressive policies and priorities. But now, thanks to the work of parents and their allies, those barriers are beginning to break.
Think about the many “shortages” in American education: teacher shortages, underfunded classrooms, achievement gaps, a lack of mental health resources, an abyss of civic literacy—and the list goes on. Yet to the extent that any or all of these accurately describe our nation’s education system, virtually all are indeed exacerbated—if not directly caused—by the policies and priorities of our education establishment deployed in pursuit of goals such as “equity.”
Equity, of course, is the political left’s increasingly preferred alternative to equality—swapping out the American ideals of “equal opportunity” and “equal protection of the law” with more radically imposed equalization of outcomes.
Indeed, today’s left lifts up “equity” among its most sacred pillars, yet far more notable than its cultivation of greatness, opportunity or achievement is its knack for leveling them like a bulldozer. In its quest to usher in absolute uniformity, the equity ethos has simply locked away the abundant resources otherwise available to our students. Consider each of the following:
- Quality Instruction: Of course, the most obvious and extreme example of our education establishment’s self-imposed scarcity came amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Prolonged school closures and rolling class-wide quarantines were held up as a matter of social and racial justice, yet they imposed unprecedented shortages in the provision of quality educational services—especially for those who were most vulnerable to the disruption. But lest these lockdown policies be waved off merely as mistaken public health protocols, recall that various school administrators and union leaders sought even to exacerbate the shortage of available resources by impeding the education of students who sought emergency alternatives via charter schools, private schools and “learning pods.” Some, like the superintendent in Philadelphia, even determined that it was better for his district to teach no students rather than risk offering remote instruction inequitably. The educational disruptions of schools’ pandemic policies together cost two decades’ worth of academic progress. Yet this self-created shortage of learning was largely avoidable, as shown by the success of private Catholic schools (serving heavily minority populations) that largely stayed open for in-person instruction and dodged the self-inflicted academic implosion of their public school peers.
- School Funding: We’re now being told that the astronomical $200 billion of federal COVID K-12 funding may not even be enough to meet the needs for additional tutors, counselors and other academic and mental health resources for American students. Yet the supposed shortfall of hundreds of billions more reflects not a failure to invest in our schools, but rather an indictment of the policies taken by “experts” without regard to student need. We must never forget that the arbitrary suspension of in-person learning—implemented at the behest of union leaders—is responsible for much of the surge in academic and mental health crises across the nation. Moreover, despite the perennial union talking points about slashed education budgets, K-12 funding per pupil in the U.S. has more than doubled (even adjusting for inflation) compared to prior decades. Any insufficiency in resources, it would seem, thus has less to do with the quantity of funds going to our schools than their deployment by those charged with stewarding them. Fortunately, policymakers have begun recognizing a new class of stewards who will not squander any such abundance: parents. Indeed, as grassroots groups like Moms for Liberty have begun to flex their collective muscle—demanding a seat at the table on issues ranging from parental rights to COVID protocols to school choice—and national polling has revealed overwhelming support for greater parental choice, lawmakers across the nation have taken note. State legislators have not only passed “Parents’ Bills of Rights” to affirm that moms and dads are the prime decision- makers for their children’s upbringing, but have also enacted sweeping school choice expansions over the past two years to give parents more control over the use of their children’s education dollars.
- Educational Options: Basic economic models have long illustrated that monopolies drive up prices while restricting supply, and a government-sanctioned monopoly in education is no different. Across the nation, families have often been unnecessarily restricted to a single provider—their local school district—regardless of its quality or the desire of would-be competitors to offer an alternative. Fortunately, in states like Arizona, where robust public school choice has long offered parents access to a growing supply of high-quality charter schools (at least up to the point of running into lengthy wait lists), parents have had at least some recourse to unsatisfactory school districts. And most recently, the state became the first to enact universal education savings accounts (known in Arizona as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs), with over 45,000 students taking advantage of the program within its first year. Yet across the other 49 states, only a patchwork of such options exists, leaving parents and students artificially constrained within a single system. It should be no surprise that governors across the country are now gearing up to follow Arizona’s lead.
- Teacher Shortages: The policies of the left have artificially limited not only the number of educational options available to students and families, but also the number of educators. While we hear constantly of a “teacher shortage” (a claim that is itself only partially accurate), rarely do members of the educational elite admit their role in artificially creating such a shortage. Yet each year the education establishment forces prospective teachers to obtain costly (in terms of both time and money) certifications in order to set foot in the classroom—certifications that tend to not even improve student outcomes. Indeed, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess has observed, these “preparation programs frequently seem more focused on insisting that would-be teachers embrace an ideological deluge of ‘anti-racist’ and ‘social justice’ dogma” than truly equipping teachers with useful skills. Unfortunately, as if teacher licensing were not enough of an artificial barrier on its own, America’s education system has embraced another policy innovation aimed at artificially constricting the supply of educators: forcing teachers in K-12 and applicants in higher education (including faculty of teachers’ colleges) to make “diversity statements” pledging their support for “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) as a condition of the hiring process. These ideologically charged oaths have already been used to screen out up to 75% of potentially qualified applicants at certain colleges and are increasingly being used in K-12—forcing teachers to pledge fealty to the highly political, racialized worldview, or else head for the door. Already, the racialized dogmatism of critical race theory and DEI has driven quality teachers out of the profession across the country. Yet our education establishment is now doubling down in the service of leftwing, union-backed ideologies, further exacerbating the artificial shortage of quality teachers.
- Transparency: Finally, perhaps nowhere is the artificial scarcity of our education system more prevalent than in the lack of curriculum transparency for parents and junior educators. In school systems across the nation, teachers submit to principals or curriculum coaches lesson plans of what they will be teaching their students—typically listing the books, articles and videos they will present in class in an upcoming week. Yet these same institutions have fought tooth and nail to block the disclosure of this same type of information to parents. Organizations like the ACLU have opposed curriculum transparency legislation like the Goldwater Institute’s Academic Transparency Act—which would ensure schools make available online a listing of the instructional materials used in class—on the grounds that it would undermine activists’ ability to push a racialized, equity-driven agenda. The ACLU has said, for instance, “Curriculum transparency bills are just thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools.” But just as schools are unnecessarily manufacturing this blackout of their materials to parents, so too are they exacerbating scarcity by restricting novice teachers from replicating the success of more veteran peers. Despite vastly more instructional content existing now than ever before, young teachers are often bereft of quality materials to use for their kids. In fact, multiple surveys confirm these teachers are spending hours each week scouring the internet for materials to use in the classroom—often resorting to basic Google or YouTube searches yielding unvetted, low-quality content. Academic transparency, on the other hand, would obliterate the artificial sequestering and secrecy of high-quality instructional programming and ensure that young teachers can leverage the same high-quality, proven programming deployed by their most successful peers.
The Road Ahead: Rejecting Scarcity, Embracing Abundance
Too often, tunnel vision has led school leaders to try eliminating all disparities even if it means inhibiting student achievement and dramatically restricting the supply of educational resources and opportunities. Virginia’s Fairfax County public school district recently withheld National Merit Scholarship opportunities earned by its students on the grounds that such distinctions might exacerbate perceptions of disparity among different kids’ levels of achievement. But like so many other ill-conceived notions of the left, the Fairfax policy of “equal outcomes for every student, without exception” does nothing to lift students up. Rather, it simply seeks to level all students to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of “equity.”
So what can be done? Well, alongside equity, the left claims to want “diversity,” and maybe it’s time we let them have it: greater diversity of school options. Greater diversity of pathways to become a teacher. Greater diversity in teacher salaries to reward excellence and effort. Greater diversity of thought and opinion in our workforce.
Fortunately, parents and allied organizations are committed to replacing the artificial shortages of equity with this abundance of opportunity—fighting to secure universal education freedom through ESAs, full academic transparency for parents and expanded access to careers for teachers. All of these are within reach, and all will help unlock the educational abundance our students deserve.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as director of the institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.