The future is now for school choice

logo-american-enterprise-instituteby Michael Q. McShane

 3 big questions will shape education’s new era.

classroom_getty_0Although 2015 is only halfway over, it has already been a banner year for private school choice programs across the country. No longer are vouchers or tax credits simply boutique options dotting the periphery of the education system. In states like Indiana, Florida and now Nevada, they are becoming central components. Most notably, Nevada passed a huge Education Savings Account program that will potentially allow tens of thousands of families to use flexible spending accounts to pay for a fully customized educational program for their children.

As private school choice moves into this new era, there are three unresolved tensions that I think will shape the next five to 10 years. Understanding them will be key to understanding the landscape of private school choice going forward.

Old vs. new. I have written for years that private school choice programs have three mechanisms by which they can improve options for students. They can (1) give students access to empty seats in existing high quality schools, (2) encourage the growth and expansion of high quality schools, and (3) spur the creation of new high quality schools. As we move from number one to number three, risk increases.

Simply moving students into existing quality schools is about as low-risk of a venture as we have in education. The schools are proven; they are established. Provided that students can be integrated into the culture and fabric of the school and teachers are prepared to teach the new students, it is a recipe for success.

Growth and new creation are much riskier.

Many of the people who support private school choice as an exercise in matching low-income students to existing high-quality private schools get nervous when you talk about starting fresh. However, there is simply not enough capacity in existing private schools to educate all of the children that need a better education. New schools will have to emerge.

Freedom vs. protection. “Parents should have the right to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs” was the mantra of the school choice movement for its first 20 years. Allow parents to pick schools for their children, and they will find the best options. Hard-won experience, though, has caused many supporters of school choice to make a slight amendment to their unifying creed. Today, they want parents to have access to good schools. But how we define “good” is a sticky wicket, and becomes a challenge when advocates’ conception of what makes a good school clashes with the expressed wishes of parents.

A troublingly large number of school choice supporters are quick to diagnose low-income families with false consciousness. Maybe they don’t value reading and math scores as much as we do, or maybe they prefer a school that has worse academic performance but doesn’t require their child to sit on a bus for over an hour every day. That is their decision to make. What’s more, the ability of individuals to make these decisions is a feature of school choice systems, not a bug. If we want education reform to be something that is done with affected communities, not to them, a good place to start is by respecting their decisions.

Disruption vs. stability. By and large, private schools are big proponents of school voucher and tax credit programs, but ask a current private school principal about educational savings accounts and they start to get leery.

On one level, they have a straightforward concern that voucher dollars are already not enough to keep pace with what it costs to educate a child and accounts risk chipping away at that even more. A $5,100 voucher is below what the school spends to educate a child, but it can make do. If the school only gets 75 or 50 percent of that allotment, it runs into serious trouble. But even with a higher allotment, some might still hold out.

This is because educational savings accounts are designed to disrupt the traditional delivery model of education by allowing families to divide their subsidy among multiple providers. But, private schools don’t want to split the money with other providers, because most private schools use the very model of delivery savings accounts are trying to disrupt. This could be a problem.

Maybe the discomfort of private schools doesn’t bother you, but, if you think private schools are on to something (or, in more mercenary terms, if you need private schools’ political support to get your choice bill passed), there is cause for concern.

School choice programs simply establish the conditions for a market to emerge. That market relies on both demand- and supply-side responses. If parents cannot access the schools that they want their children to attend, they won’t support the program. If new schools or new providers don’t enter the market, either due to regulation or because the funding mechanism doesn’t offer them what they want, there won’t be enough seats. The better advocates understand this complex dance of supply and demand, the better they can design programs that will meet the desperate needs of so many American families.

Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies and writes about K–12 education policy, including private and religious schools and the politics of education.

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