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As the 2014 election approaches, and 2016 looms large on the horizon, numerous Republican candidates have laid markers down on education reform as a tool for curbing poverty in America.
A veritable mountain of evidence, from researchers of all political stripes, highlights the importance of education in improving income mobility. One great stat, just to underscore this point, comes from research by the Brookings Institution. A child born in the lowest income quintile in America that fails to earn a college degree has a 45 percent chance of staying there and only a 5 percent chance of making it into the top quintile. If that student earns a college degree he or she has only a 16 percent chance of staying in the lowest income quintile and a 19 percent chance of making to the top.
What’s more, Republicans appear to be pushing school choice as a mechanism for reforming the education system. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) unveiled a massive new federal school choice bill at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday. As reported by the Hill, both Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are interested in talking about school choice, with Cruz calling it “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said earlier this month that, “fighting for education opportunity is more important than ever,” and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote that “school choice opens doors to the American Dream.”
In his State of the State address, Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who has been dubbed the 2016 GOP presidential counterweight to Hillary Clinton, stated, “we need to be more aggressive, and bolder, in fixing our failing schools – and delivering a choice to those for whom today the only option is a bad option: a failing school.”
These politicians are on to something. In fact, both charter schools and school vouchers (the two most popular forms of state-supported school choice) have strong records of evidence that they do as well or better than traditional public schools at significantly less cost to taxpayers. They also allow many poor families the freedom to choose the education that best suits their child’s unique skills, talents, and disposition in a way that previously only the middle-class and wealthy could.
But it needs to be noted that “school choice” is a broad word that covers a lot of territory. When Republicans talk about school choice they should note:
1. Not all forms of school choice are created equal
While “charter schools” and “school vouchers” on average and in aggregate tend to see positive results, individual charter or voucher programs have a wide variance in quality. How schools are authorized, how they are funded, and how they are regulated is essential to determining their ultimate success.
2. Context matters
School choice programs are crafted at the state level. The existing stock of private schools and their attitudes regarding government regulation vary from state to state. This profoundly impacts how school choice programs can and should be designed. When Wisconsin decided to require private schools to participate in state testing in order to get state funds, there was great outcry. When Indiana did the same thing, there wasn’t. What was the difference? Well, in Indiana, to participate in state athletics (think Hooisers) schools already had to take state tests. That little idiosyncrasy made passing a key part of the legislation much easier. In states where private schools have been more independent, some of the regulations that come with state money could be much more difficult to make happen.
3. Saving money in the short term might cost money in the long term
Typically, school choice programs receive less funding per pupil than traditional public schools. This makes every student that leaves a public school with a voucher a cost savings for the state. In difficult budgetary times, school choice can be seen as a tool to save money.This leads to laws that require participating students to have attended public school the previous year. Unfortunately, requiring students to go to public schools in order to go to private school pushes out families that want a complete education for their child in the same school. This is short-sided. Yes, an influx of current private school students into the program might make for a short term cost-spike, but the competitive effects, over the long term, should drive down the cost of education for everyone.
4. Regulations designed to do one thing are probably bad at doing something completely different
The three largest and most expansive voucher programs (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, The Indiana Choice Scholarship, and the Louisiana Voucher Program) require participating students to take the same tests as students in traditional public schools. This means that the state uses a tool designed to do one thing—regulate schools that are monopoly providers—to do something completely different—regulate a marketplace. It makes sense for the state to play an outsized role in attempting to ensure quality when children don’t have a choice of where they go to school. It makes less sense when they do. That said, school choice programs should not be a free for all. Innovative legislators need to find new mechanisms to ensure floors of quality and accurate labeling without stifling innovation and uniqueness.
Republicans like Cantor, Alexander, Scott, Rubio, and Cruz, who have respect and appreciation for the power of markets, have an obligation to come to a more circumspect understanding of how school choice helps (and at times doesn’t help) children. Advocating for that will be good politics and good policy.
McShane is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, and a former inner city school teacher.
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