OPINION: An economic case for school choice

The Trump administration recently announced plans to combine the Labor Department and the Education Department. While unlikely to happen, it is a nod to the link between the quality of education this country provides young people and a robust workforce. In 1973, many Americans entering retirement today were entering the labor market. At the time, only 28 percent of jobs required education or training after high school. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will need postsecondary education or training.

These trends show no sign of reversal, yet our education system has done little to adjust. Since 2005, the percentage of 12th graders performing at or above proficient in math and reading has remained stagnant at less than 40 percent. In reading, proficiency rates have fallen since the 1990s. In an effort to boost outcomes, states focused on increasing high school graduation rates. This happened in tandem with federal accountability initiatives administered by the Education Department. Together, it caused the needle for proficiency to change, even when learning did not.

From passing third graders who could not read to graduating seniors who could not compute, we sent the message that young people were ready for the next level of academic pursuit, though many were not. To fill workforce needs, we encouraged them to pursue postsecondary training, yet underprepared them to do so. Three decades ago, when teenagers entered the labor market before or upon graduating from high school, their employability was immediately felt in the economy.

Today, many colleges must deliver a sobering message to more than half of new enrollees: You may not find a good paying job without more education, but you are also not prepared for higher education. Enter the growing demand for remedial education. Students and states spend $7 billion each year paying for learning that should have occurred in high school. Of community college students needing remedial education, fewer than one in 10 graduates from a two-year program in three years.

It is worse for those who never graduate from high school, which still accounts for more than 15 percent of eligible young people. They are more likely to rely on government programs, as high school dropouts account for 90 percent of welfare recipients, less likely to contribute to economic growth, as the average high school dropout costs the economy $240,000 over a lifetime, and more likely to enter the criminal justice system, as 85 percent of juveniles entering the system are illiterate.

What can be done to improve the state of our education system so that more young people finish high school prepared to succeed in higher education and the workforce? This question, and the challenge it presents, is not new. Over the years, policymakers have advanced many reforms aimed at boosting student achievement, but many fell flat.

There is one reform that improves academic achievement, invites innovation, rejects any notion that all children cannot learn, and is in high demand by families. It is educational choice. Students attending schools of choice have better outcomes and better rates of college completion. School districts also benefit from educational choice.

Unfortunately, though choice programs are scalable, only a fraction of children today have access. When we take away the children whose families can move to a different zip code to attend a different public school or pay tuition to attend a private school, we are left with millions of lower income children stuck in a system that has proven incapable or unwilling to deliver a quality education to every child.

Those opposed to giving families school options, namely teachers unions, will not be moved by student outcomes, family demand, or whether or not America is preparing young people to succeed in the evolving workforce. Instead of asking how charters close the achievement gap, they work to unionize charter school teachers. Instead of asking how private schools help more kids get to college, they work to keep lower income kids out of those schools. Though we have the capacity to expand educational choice to millions of more children, they will always line up to stop it.

The future economic prosperity of this country depends on an education system that meets the workforce needs of tomorrow. We already know that improvement is possible. We know what it takes. We must push through the rhetoric that prevents families from accessing educational choice. The best predictor of an adult who can achieve his potential in the workforce is a child who can attend a school that meets his needs.

John Schilling is president of the American Federation for Children, an organization that advocates for educational choice in the United States.