School Choice Combats Mental Health Problems

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Over the past year, 65% of households with children reported the use of online learning during the pandemic, and the results haven’t been pretty. Most notable among the many adverse effects is the increase in mental health issues that isolation has caused. However, on February 3rd, the Director of the CDC gave families a positive message;  “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” he said, and the hallelujah choruses sang. 

Sadly, however, the excitement was brief for families who’ve struggled with online learning; Randy Weingarten, president of one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, undermined the Director of the CDC’s comments: “For teachers, it’s not a matter of simply preferring to stay home,” she said. “It’s a safety issue, and they feel safer staying home.”

Weingarten’s comments would have made sense at the beginning of the pandemic; there was broad consensus then that shutting down schools was an appropriate measure. Pandemic fears trumped the potential adverse effects of online learning. But now, with information saying it is safe to open schools, Weingarten is just being stubborn. Teachers’ unions dragging their feet over reopening schools will only exacerbate the negative effects children and their families have suffered. 

Even before the pandemic, however, children’s mental health issues had been growing for years. Allowing school choice—a policy that would allow students to choose their schools in place of neighborhood zoning laws—would help ameliorate not only the mental health issues that Covid has brought but continue to do so when schools reopen.

In the first study of its kind, Western Carolina University economist Angela K. Dills and Cato Institute scholar Corey A. DeAngelis documented the impacts school choice and ESA’s have on mental health. Their report suggests that students in states who have implemented school choice programs had lowered their mental illness and suicide rates, and decreased by 2 percent their propensity to report having a mental disorder at age thirty. 

The study’s results make sense as school choice bills similar to the ones introduced by multiple states recently would allow children to attend a school in a different environment. The new schooling environments could let children escape their bully, a mean teacher, or just be in an overall safer school environment giving them refuge.

This outdated system of residential assignment hurts minorities, in particular, and completely disregards the fact that each child is different. Yet teacher’s unions have advocated for residential assignment policy for years, blocking necessary reforms like school choice, which would allow children a way out of the system and into a school that works best for them.

One form of school choice legislation, in particular, called Educational Savings Accounts(ESA), works best for the current moment. ESAs allow families to take their education dollars wherever they feel their children can get the best education—charter, private, public, home, or even investing into college early. In some cases, that will mean families taking their money out of the public school. But that’s fair, especially if the public schools are closed. Parents should have the right to send their kids to schools that are open and affordable.

Allowing students into a school with the right environment is not just the logical thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. The more we limit children’s options, forcing them to learn online or attend schools that don’t fit, the more we do them a grave disservice. School choice is a step in the right direction to help combat mental health in children and save more families from going through the struggles poor mental health imposes on them.

Cooper Conway
Cooper Conway is a contributor at Young Voices and a Boise State University Honors College student, where he studies political science.