School choice and freedom in education

Published 10:59 am Saturday, August 9, 2014

by Clay Scott

I’ve been a school choice advocate for many years, but I recently concluded that school choice is not really what is needed, nor is it enough, to fix our education system. Virginia has a reputation as one the worst states when it comes to school choice. It is true that parents have few choices in Virginia, but the truth is that we always have the ability to choose. This is what is meant by the “unalienable right” of liberty. Even if the government, or any other influencer, wanted to remove that right, it could not be done. The only thing that an outside influencer could do would be to increase or decrease the opportunity costs of a given choice. We can and do make choices regarding education. Beside neighborhood schools, parents homeschool or send their children to private academies. Furthermore, education in its complete sense is done far more extensively outside of schools. Schools see to the academics, but are gradually recusing themselves of participation in all other components of a complete education. Nevertheless, individual teachers and administrators make choices to extend themselves in attempts to support parents by upholding and modeling the values that they strive to teach their children at home.

In regard to schooling, if we feel restricted it is only because the Central Authority has engaged in a long train of abuses and usurpations designed to reduce us under absolute despotism (If you missed that allusion, it’s from a document rarely read before high school, if at all). When people call for more “school choice” they are really asking for more freedom in education. They are not trying to declare complete independence, they just want the government to back off a little.

Another reason school choice is not enough is that the issue is not all about parents choosing their children’s schools. It is also about allowing schools to become their best selves. Here’s the secret. Many teacher and principals feel “reduced under absolute despotism” as well. Parents are not the only “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the educational landscape.

In the school choice discussion, the government retains the power, yielding just one of many education choices to parents. By contrast, “freedom in education” is the natural occurrence of individual citizens exercising their God-given power to act freely without government obstruction. Virginia has charter school laws. We have had them for quite some time now. And yet we watch idly as our neighbors to the south rise to national prominence in charter education, while we remain perfectly content to add a few schools in Norfolk and Virginia Beach which amount to nothing more than magnet schools from the 1980s. (These schools have single-district range and accountability — in other words, there were no changes in power in the conversion/creation of these schools)

True freedom in education starts with one thing: a narrow, specific declaration of the state’s interest in education. I am not aware of such a statement in any of the 50 states. It then adds an accreditation system for verifying that institutions are meeting that interest. The last part is sufficient funding to provide each student in the state with an appropriate education. That is all that is required to have a highly effective education system. The American Spirit will take over from there.

This ideal structure may not be in the near future. We have some very deeply ingrained assumptions about education, school, and sound public school policy. This is one realm that has clearly not learned that “less is more.” What we can do, however, is use the right language. Owning the terms of discourse is oftentimes half way to victory. Let’s start with something small, quit talking about school choice — and start talking about freedom in education.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and doctoral candidate at The George Washington University. He can be reached at