Transparency and choice

By SOLOMON CHEN and NEAL McCLUSKEY
Posted 8/31/21

You are craving a Caesar salad, but you have a problem: There is only one restaurant in town, and it won’t tell you what it is serving until you have paid. Stomach rumbling, you take a chance, …

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Transparency and choice

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You are craving a Caesar salad, but you have a problem: There is only one restaurant in town, and it won’t tell you what it is serving until you have paid. Stomach rumbling, you take a chance, plunking down $20 and getting … meatloaf.

This is akin to what happens in education. Families do not have options, and they too often do not know what they will get at their assigned public school: maybe critical race theory, the hot topic of the day that many see as deeming all white children racist, that upsets their stomachs, or maybe a white‐washed history that leaves families hungry for more truth.

Making matters worse, families must pay for the public schools, even if they do not want to take a chance on the menu.

How can we improve the educational dining scene? Public school transparency, coupled with copious amounts of school choice. To draw the culinary analogy out a bit further, transparency and choice are chocolate and peanut butter: two great tastes that taste great together.

Yet many states do not have curriculum transparency laws, and the main transparency tool is Freedom of Information Act requests.

Such requests can be contentious and expensive, as evidenced by the Rhode Island court case between the National Education Association and parent Nicole Solas regarding Solas’s requests for information on critical race theory and gender issues in her school district. The union is calling Solas’s request an invasion of teachers’ privacy rights, and the district has said that fulfilling her roughly 200 requests will cost about $74,000. Taxpayers should not have to pay once for public schools and a second time to see what those schools are teaching.

We need simpler and broader transparency, not only to enable better public discussions, but also to help embattled teachers. For example, teacher Kyle Johnson at Springfield High School in Oregon was accused of including critical race theory in a writing assignment requiring students to discuss “injustice,” but Johnson said the project was given out every year and was not driven by critical race theory. Transparency could show that teachers such as Johnson had planned assignments long before they may have seemed politicized.

The good news is that some states, including Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have transparency legislation. The bills have some differing components, but all would require public schools to publish titles or links to books and other material, such as videos, likely to be used in classes, as well as likely class and whole‐school activities.

Of course, the power of transparency is limited if families cannot act on it. If your stomach is demanding that Caesar salad, it will not help you much to know that you are getting meatloaf.

For transparency to be truly helpful, it must be coupled with school choice. States should create education savings accounts, vouchers, or other mechanisms that enable education dollars to follow students to educational options their families choose. Thankfully, 2021 has seen either new or expanded choice programs in 18 states, earning it the moniker “The Year of School Choice.”

Transparency and school choice would enable families to get what they need. It is time for states to put those great tastes together.

The writers are scholars at the Cato Institute (cato.org) in Washington. The article was edited for length.

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