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2018 will not be the year of school choice and that's OK
Many academic papers fill their pages with dry and turgid prose that appears to value opacity and esoterica over wit, humor or the reader’s enjoyment. But every once in a while, a researcher cuts through the fog with a pithy question in the title, and the answer in the abstract.
For example, a 2011 paper speaking about physics concepts that I don’t understand in the slightest, titled: “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” had a two word abstract beneath it: “Probably not.”
The 1989 NBER Working paper titled “Unit Roots in Real GNP: Do we know and do we care?” had a four word abstract: “No, and maybe not.”
I’d like to take the same approach to a popular policy question that is circulating through the education reform movement: Is 2018 going to be another “year of school choice?”
My answer: No, and that’s OK.
The past seven years have been boom times for the private school choice movement. At the end of the year 2010, there were fewer than 200,000 students utilizing a voucher, tax credit scholarship or education savings account across the nation, and 25 total private school choice programs. 2017 closed with nearly 450,000 students taking advantage of more than 60 private school choice programs. Growth is good. Starting new programs and expanding existing ones offers more options for more children and that is something that we should celebrate.
But growth isn’t everything. Over the past several years, we have seen substantial variation in the quality of programs states have authorized. Some programs are too small to meaningfully impact a state’s education system. Some are so poorly funded that few students and schools are able to participate. Some are so larded up with regulations that they are scaring away high quality, but independent, schools. Declaring the success or failure of the school choice movement based on the raw number of programs enacted misses all of this.
2018 could be a great year for the school choice movement to take stock, solidify its position and guard its flanks.
In taking stock, the school choice movement can learn from both the successes and failures of other education reform efforts. One of those lessons, highlighted in a great essay by my friend Rick Hess, is that getting laws passed is just the beginning of the work of education reform, not the end. Expanding the map of how many states adopted the Common Core or revamped their teacher evaluation systems was lauded vociferously in the early days of those movements, but when the rubber met the road, states started ditching the standards or their assessments and many new evaluation systems churned out the same results as the old ones.
School choice supporters should do better. Now that laws are passed, what are the administrative hurdles that schools and families are facing? Are enough students eligible for the program and are scholarships sufficient to cover the cost of attending a quality private school? Are the reporting requirements onerous or nonsensical? How can the prosaic details of government administration be attended to in a way that best works for children and the schools that they want to attend?
To solidify its position, the school choice movement could redouble its efforts to address current shortcomings in school choice marketplaces. One area of concern is around parental information. States, localities and non-profit organizations around the country are working to help parents have comparable data for their various options, but more work should be done to make sure that parents are not just empowered with choices, but also the information necessary to make those choices reflect their true preferences.
Finally, school choice does have vulnerabilities. Dips in support for charter schools set the sector ablaze when they were released this year. Private school choice fared better, but school choice, and particularly private school choice, risks becoming a one-party policy. This isn’t how it has been in the past, and shouldn’t be how it is in the future. In a year that will be ugly politically, school choice supporters should work to try and mend fences, not build walls.
This type of work won’t get any headlines, and that is fine. Policy wonks in Washington with short attention spans might proclaim school choice to be dead and move on to the next flash in the pan. That’s OK too. School choice supporters must play the long game. They should invest in establishing and improving strong school choice programs, supporting the schools and families that participate in them, and working every day to make school choice as much a part of our education system’s DNA as buses and textbooks.
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