Stuck In The Middle: Why School Choice Should Be Available To Everyone

Feb 4 · 5 min read

By Jennifer Wagner

After almost five years working in the school choice movement, the subhed on this story about the potential cost of Indiana’s proposed voucher expansion and special needs ESA wasn’t really a surprise:

An Indiana House bill could boost by 40% the number of students, many from middle-class families, receiving state subsidies for private schooling

Goodness gracious, not the middle class!

Heaven forbid we help out those families who’ve worked hard to get a leg up, maybe even gotten themselves out of a lower income bracket, and want to utilize their tax dollars to send their kids to a school other than the one they’ve been assigned to attend.

The middle class has been shrinking for quite some time. Pew Research reports that the share of American adults who live in middle-income households decreased from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019, and even though a slightly higher percentage moved up the income ladder as opposed to down, middle-class incomes overall have not grown at the rate of upper-tier incomes. Shorter: The rich got richer.

As a society, we’ve long been fine with higher-income families exercising choice the old-fashioned way: buying nice houses in fancy school districts or paying thousands in tuition so their kids can access private schooling.

As a movement, we started building choice programs — including public charter schools — on the foundation that lower-income families were stuck in schools and districts that were not meeting their needs. These efforts have been successful, and we should be proud of that work.

But now we have a chance to do more to ensure all families have access to quality schooling options without having to break the bank or move across town.

If you look at public opinion on means-tested programs versus universal access, you’ll see that universal programs actually have slightly higher appeal with the general public and a seven-point advantage among parents.

Why, then, is it so difficult for policymakers and some advocates to embrace the idea of universality?

For starters, we get caught up in this idea that we need to fund school buildings — a tangible representation of the K — 12 system — and we lose all perspective of how parents actually think and what they want. (We also fall into the trap of assuming that increased K–12 funding goes to the things we want it to, which is a topic for another Medium post.)

A few years back, we asked Indiana families why they chose the schools they chose. Their reasons were all over the place:

Oddly enough, “I’m sitting at home plotting ways to dismantle traditional public schools” didn’t come back as a response.

Are there cases where families seek alternatives to a traditional public school based on their experience there? Yes. But they’re making that choice because of their experience in that school. Parents aren’t trying to topple an institution; they just want to do what’s best for their kids.

And sometimes, that means enrolling them in a private school.

The tricky part is figuring out who should have access to that privilege. Where do we draw the line? That question gets us into a debate about percentages above poverty and free-and-reduced-lunch rates, and we quickly lose sight of the fact that we actually know very little about people’s financial situations based on one or two data points.

The result: We impress our definition of “need” on others’ personal lives, leading back to the fundamentally flawed — and intrinsically inequitable — argument that if you make a certain amount of money, to be determined by state or federal elected officials who know nothing of your life circumstances, you need to prioritize spending that income on your child’s K-12 education while continuing to pay into a system you are no longer using.

“We’re funding two separate systems instead of really investing in one,” said Jennifer Smith-Margraf, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Well, no.

First, if we keep looking at this as a system-versus-system dilemma, we’re definitely not speaking a language most families understand. They’re looking for opportunity, not labels.

But if that’s the framework, allowing families to spend the public funds set aside for their child’s education would actually be investing in one system — a “system” that puts those families first. Instead, by denying families access to their preferred schooling type, we are indirectly forcing them to fund two separate systems while we make a judgment about how they should allocate their resources.

We all agree K-12 education is a priority we should fund. Why not let families decide how they want to spend that money?

On paper, someone might make a six-figure income, but they could, for example, be paying off college loan debt they incurred to get that good-paying job or medical bills for a loved one who fell ill. (Higher education and health care are other topics we could discuss if we want to chat through systems that often put middle-class families at a cash-strapped disadvantage. But I digress.)

If we view a quality K–12 education as a fundamental thing that all Americans should be able to access, we should make sure all Americans get the funding they deserve to secure the education their kids need, whether that’s public, private, charter, homeschooling, online or something else that’s still in the pipeline. Break down barriers instead of making assumptions about what families can and can’t afford.

This is even more important right now as we come out of a global pandemic that has destroyed many families’ livelihoods and savings accounts. It’s worth noting that the very old idea of giving people direct, unrestricted payments—often called Universal Basic Income or guaranteed income—is gaining momentum across the country right now.

But hey, I get that opposition to school choice often comes from an emotional connection to a K–12 public schooling model that’s been around for generations. Those aforementioned buildings are an extension of the local community. They are places of pride, and that’s a valid reason to want them to succeed.

So if helping middle class families attend private schools is a bridge too far, then perhaps we can find agreement on a school choice policy that’s utilized more than vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and charter schools: open enrollment.

That way, public dollars stay in public schools, but families aren’t restricted by boundary lines. To be clear, this isn’t what we believe or advocate for at EdChoice, but maybe it’s a place to start for those folks who aren’t ready to go all-in on universal choice programs. After all, if every public school opened their doors to every student, that would get us to a more equitable place where the money follows students to schools that work for them.

Whatever we do, it’s high time we start talking about doing it for everyone, whether they’re at the extremes of the income scale or smack dab in the middle.

Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.

Advancing universal K-12 educational choice as the best…


Written by

National nonprofit dedicated to advancing universal K-12 educational choice as the best pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.


Advancing universal K-12 educational choice as the best pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.