School Choice Makes
Teachers Free to Teach
Our whole education system is designed to treat teachers like
factory line workers, not responsible professionals. School choice
breaks the government monopoly by putting parents in charge—
getting politicians out of the classroom.
By Greg Forster
There has been a lot of talk lately about politicians interfering in classrooms, but this isn’t actually a new problem. Politicians have been interfering with good teaching ever since we created a government monopoly on schools—because that’s what a government monopoly does.
Teachers who want to be free to teach should support school choice. It breaks the government monopoly by putting parents in charge, getting politicians out of the classroom.
Parents generally respect and value teachers as responsible professionals who want to help them raise their children right. Admittedly, some parents can be difficult to deal with. But politicians have always been a much bigger problem for teachers—and, as we’ll see, it’s the politicians who put the worst parents in a position of power over schools.
Our whole education system is designed to treat teachers like factory line workers, not responsible professionals. That’s because the government monopoly on schooling makes every political interest group see schools as its business. If government runs the schools, you’re not allowed to tell taxpayers and voters to butt out of the classroom—not if we’re going to have a constitutional, democratic republic where government is of, by, and for the people.
Some of these interest groups are well-meaning and just want to help. Some have strong ideological commitments they want the government school monopoly to teach. And a lot of them are just greedy and don’t care about education one way or the other as long as the gravy trains run on time. But all of them want to have their fingers in the classroom, which means the whole education system runs on politics.
Here are just a few of the ways that works out in practice, and how school choice would make teachers free to teach.
This is what everyone’s talking about right now. Of course, everyone is for accountability—but a lot depends on what you mean by it. Where politicians are in charge, “accountability” means centralized systems of control. Political appointees boss schools around, rewarding and punishing them based on measurements designed and selected by the politicians, for political purposes, and whose relationship to real learning is often highly questionable.
It’s a mistake to think that this is a new issue with the recent attempt to nationalize control over education. In 2009, Christian D’Andrea and I conducted an empirical study comparing teachers in public schools and private schools, using survey data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. We called our study “Free to Teach” because we found that in private schools, where parents are in charge, teachers had much more freedom and responsibility in the classroom, and were therefore much happier with their working conditions and careers.
On accountability, we found private school teachers were much more likely to say they have a great deal of influence on performance standards for students (40 percent versus 18 percent), curriculum (47 percent versus 22 percent), and discipline policy (25 percent versus 13 percent). They were also more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53 percent versus 32 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (60 percent versus 36 percent).
Remember, these huge differences in teacher freedom and responsibility were observed before the current presidential administration attempted to nationalize control over schools. Do you think the difference is greater now, or less?
School choice would send the federal educrats packing. All schools could have the kind of educational environment reflected in those private school data. Teachers would have a high degree of control over what they taught and how they taught it—and be responsible to parents for the results.
Some of the most startling differences between teacher working conditions we found in our study relate to student discipline. As the American legal and regulatory system becomes more detached from common sense, there are ever more constraints on teachers’ ability to keep order in their classrooms. Student rights push out teacher rights, and teachers lose the opportunity to educate because they’re too busy managing chaos.
Shockingly, we found public school teachers were four times more likely than private school teachers to say student violence was a problem on at least a monthly basis (48 percent versus 12 percent). That means about half of public school teachers are being asked to work in an environment where violence is a regular problem. Nearly one in five public school teachers had been physically threatened by a student, compared to only one in 20 private school teachers (18 percent versus 5 percent). Nearly one in 10 public school teachers had been physically attacked by a student, three times the rate in private schools (9 percent versus 3 percent).
Where student violence is a problem on some days, student disorder is a problem every day. Sure enough, we found public school teachers were much more likely to report that student misbehavior (37 percent versus 21 percent) or tardiness and class cutting (33 percent versus 17 percent) disrupt their classes. One in eight public school teachers reported that physical conflicts among students occurred every day; only one in 50 private school teachers said the same (12 percent versus 2 percent). How are teachers supposed to teach?
We’ve all heard horror stories about parents who won’t let teachers discipline students. But the main reason those parents are a problem is because politicians are in charge of schools. It’s their legal and regulatory system that gives noxious parents so many rights, and teachers so few.
The data indicate that where parents are in charge, classroom chaos is controlled. Student rights (and parent rights!) don’t trump teacher rights. That’s because parents have chosen the school—including its discipline policy. If parental expectations and school policy on discipline don’t align, parents can find a better match at another school.
That means teachers are free to keep order. School choice would give every teacher that freedom.
Each school, like any organization, has its own institutional culture. Where politicians rule, schools are more likely to develop a toxic or indifferent culture. Many of the most important rules and regulations are set outside the school (primarily in negotiations between politicians and staff unions) and leaders have to focus on satisfying external constituencies.
Where parents are in charge, the school is free to be itself, and that cultivates a strong spirit. Private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that there is a great deal of cooperation between staff members (60 percent versus 41 percent), that their colleagues shared their values and understanding of the core mission of the school (63 percent versus 38 percent), and that their fellow teachers consistently enforced school rules (42 percent versus 29 percent).
These intangible factors affect how schools manage their more material affairs. Private schools almost always have smaller budgets than public schools. Yet somehow private school teachers were more likely to strongly agree they had all the textbooks and supplies they needed (67 percent versus 41 percent). They were also more likely to strongly agree they got all the support they needed to teach special needs students (72 percent versus 64 percent). And although their class sizes were only moderately smaller, private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that they were satisfied with their class sizes (61 percent versus 34 percent).
Another sign of strong institutional culture is racial tension. A large body of studies finds that private schools are typically less racially segregated than public schools. Yet private school teachers were much more likely to report that student racial tension never happens at their schools (72 percent versus 43 percent).
Where politicians are in charge, the school is always an appendage of the government—and that comes through in the institutional culture. School choice would let schools be schools.
Teacher unions are always eager to remind us of one benefit public school teachers have that private school teachers lack—they’re protected by teacher unions. But how much do these unions benefit teachers, and how much do they benefit themselves?
One way to answer that is by looking at what happens when public school teachers aren’t compelled by law to join unions. In state after state, when teachers have been given a choice, they have fled the unions in droves. How beneficial can these unions be if teachers won’t join except at gunpoint?
It’s true that salaries are higher in public schools, but teachers do not live by bread alone. We found that private school teachers were actually a little more likely to be satisfied with their salaries (51 percent versus 46 percent). Apparently the freedom to teach is more valuable to some teachers than a few extra dollars.
When we look beyond money to overall career satisfaction, the advantage of putting parents in charge is clear. Private school teachers were much more likely to say they would continue teaching as long as they were able (62 percent versus 44 percent), while public school teachers were much more likely to say they’d leave teaching as soon as they were eligible for retirement (33 percent versus 12 percent). Public school teachers were twice as likely to agree that the stress and disappointments they experienced at their schools were so great that teaching there wasn’t really worth it (13 percent versus 6 percent) and almost twice as likely to agree that they sometimes felt it was a waste of time to try to do their best as a teacher (17 percent versus 9 percent).
School choice is a political program, but one aimed at getting politicians out of schools. Students and families aren’t the only ones who’d benefit from that. Teachers would be wise to choose choice.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.