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March 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 7

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Freedom to Choose, Equality of Education


by Deborah D. Thornton



Income inequality has been a hot topic recently, with a move to raise the minimum wage led by President Barack Obama and supported by Democrats (and some Republicans) nationwide. Income inequality is caused by many things, but should not be the result of educational inequality. Since Brown vs. Board of Education officially cancelled the “separate but equal” policy of educational segregation by race 60 years ago, the country has been waiting for educational equality.


This has not happened, even with billions of new dollars given to the government school systems every year. African-American, Hispanic, and low-income children, even in Iowa, generally are not learning as much as the majority white children. This is well documented by a wide variety of tests, including the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and American College Testing/Scholastic Aptitude Test (ACT/SAT) tests. Unfortunately, unless the skills and abilities of these children –– who will become the young workers needing better jobs to support themselves and their families –– are improved they will not be able to earn higher wages. Until these children are successfully taught to read, write, and do math –– their ability to compete for and get better, i.e. higher-paying, jobs will not improve, no matter how high the minimum wage is raised.


Unfortunately, their parents have not had the freedom within the government-education system to choose where they go to school, to choose educational equality. Historically, children have been assigned to the closest school. The newest fad is to assign children based on balancing Free and Reduced Lunch percentages, instead of race. The only choice option, generally, has been to personally pay for a private-school education. Fortunately, more states are recognizing that the parents’ right to choose is fundamental to educational equality and economic freedom. Parents, from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, to California, are stepping up and demanding that their children be provided a quality education and that they, not the government, have the right to decide where their child attends school.


Quality may be the closest neighborhood school, or not. It may be the school closest to work or family members. Quality can be a magnet school allowing intense study of art, music, or science. Quality can include moral or religious instruction. It can be government or privately operated. Quality can be homeschooling or on-line instruction.


The important ingredient to a quality education is that it is not the same for every child or every family. One size does not fit all.


A recent national report authorized by the Friedman Foundation on providing school choice shows that while there are differences of opinion between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents based on whether vouchers should be used for all children or only low-income or handicapped children –– there are no differences based on race. The support for vouchers of all types is basically the same for Hispanics, African-Americans, and white Americans.[1] This is an important indication of broad-based support for the freedom to choose equality of education.


Some argue that because the Friedman Foundation is specifically in favor of increased school choice their surveys are not reliable. This is not true. A peer-reviewed study published in the January 2014 issue of Contemporary Economic Policy on school choice in Ohio also provides solid evidence that a broad array of people support school choice.[2] A telephone survey of 1,165 Ohio homeowners showed 44 percent support “school choice.”[3] Both upper- and lower-income people supported school choice, as did people in blue-collar neighborhoods. African-Americans and those with only “moderate” levels of education supported school choice more, as did parents with younger children.


Interestingly, but consistent with other surveys, liberal and very-liberal people were opposed to school choice. One would think that these individuals –– those with an overriding philosophy of helping the disadvantaged, wanting all to have “equal” opportunity, and opposed to “inequality” in most forms –– would support educational freedom of choice. Unfortunately, they do not.


A similar survey of Iowa voters revealed that 38 percent favor private schools as their first choice, if they could choose. Slightly less than 50 percent of Iowans prefer government schools.[4] Both homeschooling and charter schools were preferred by 5 percent of voters.


The 38 percent preference for private schools is an important indication of the desire for educational freedom. Yet only 7 percent of Iowa children are actually enrolled in private schools. Only one of five who would prefer a private school is actually using one. The reality is that 93 percent of our children are enrolled in the government-education system. Of the 5 percent statewide who said they favored homeschooling, only about 2.3 percent, or 10,700 some children are homeschooled.[5] Fortunately, the Iowa Legislature acted in 2013 to make homeschooling an easier choice.


These results show that Iowa parents are not following their desires. They would like for their children to be in private schools, but their children are not. If we are going to be concerned about educational equality, school choice must be a first step. All parents must be able to choose what is best for their child, irrespective of how much money they make. Sixty years is too long to wait.


[1] Dick Carpenter, “Support for School Choice Based on Political Affiliation and Race/Ethnicity,” January 7, 2014, <> accessed on January 21, 2014.
[2] David M. Brasington and Diane Hite, “School Choice: Supporters and Opponents,” Contemporary Economic Policy, Vol. 32, No. 1, January 2014, p. 76, <> accessed on January 13, 2014.
[3] Ibid., p. 79.
[4] Paul DiPerna, “Iowa, K-12 & School Choice Survey, What do Voters Say About K-12 Education?,” Polling Paper No. 16, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, October 8, 2013, p. 12, <> accessed on January 9, 2014.
[5] Mike Wiser, “New Laws Relax Oversight of Iowa’s Homeschoolers,” Sioux City Journal, September 7, 2013, <> accessed on January 27, 2014.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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