How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue

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Conservatives champion it. Liberals loathe it. But both sides have distorted the cause, and students are paying the price.

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Larry Downing/Reuters

Bill Cosby and Dick Morris presumably disagree about most things, so it's instructive to note that both have officially endorsed "School Choice Week," which began yesterday with a series of rallies and events around the country celebrating the idea of parents being able to decide where their children go to school. Indeed, school choice seems like such an obviously good idea that the most interesting thing about School Choice Week is why it exists at all.

That school choice is valuable is beyond dispute. That's why there's a multi-billion dollar private school industry serving millions of students. And it's why there is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market. While some parents pay school tuition directly, many more pay it through their monthly mortgage and property tax bills. Anyone who has deliberately purchased a home in a "good" school district is, by definition, a beneficiary and supporter of school choice.

Because school choice is so dependant on financial means, students from well-off families are much more likely to attend schools that have both high overall levels of quality and are tailored to their specific educational needs. These are the same children who, studies have shown, also experience much more enriching educational environments outside of school than their less privileged peers. In combination, this goes a long way toward explaining the persistent educational achievement gap between rich and poor children that haunts American education.

At its best, the school choice movement is dedicated to leveling the educational playing field by giving more parents access to choices they can't afford in the free market. Who could object? Plenty of people, as it turns out. This disagreement is a major impediment to achieving education justice in America. School choice is a perfect example of a fundamentally sound public policy idea that has been corrupted by a combination of ideology and naivete.

The birth of the school choice movement is usually dated to the publication of Milton Friedman's 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education," in which he proposed:

... giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on "approved" educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an "approved" institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds.

Friedman, as we all know, was enormously influential in shaping conservative economic thought. But it took a long time for his educational ideas to become embedded on one side of partisan lines. In the early 1970s, liberal education activists openly promoted the idea giving poor students Friedman-like vouchers in order to help them escape dysfunctional urban school systems. 

But at the same time, the Republican party was in the midst of shifting toward a new brand of free-market, anti-government ideology. As Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform whose education planks were voucher-focused, school choice became an issue like abortion or gun control that people learn to be stridently for or against based on their larger party affiliation.

The fact that that the likely recipients of vouchers were either religious or non-unionized private schools made the divisions even more acute. For Republicans, vouchers were a way to be pro-God, pro-market and anti-labor all at the same time. This proved to be such a satisfying combination that many conservative politicians have never bothered to adopt any other discernible position on public education. Similarly, liberals could use vouchers to support their union allies and fight for the separation of church and state.

Such deep political trenches made school choice legislation difficult to pass. To this day, vouchers are only available to a small handful of students. Then, a decade after Reagan's election, school choice manifested in a new idea that was designed to address many of the obvious weaknesses of vouchers: charter schools. First conceived in Minnesota and given a crucial "New Democrat" endorsement by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charters have since expanded across the nation.

Charter schools are public schools accountable through a contract or "charter" to public bodies. If they fail to meet the terms of the charter, they can be quickly shut down. Like regular public schools, charters are accountable for student scores on standardized tests under laws like the federal No Child Left Behind act. Unlike private schools that pick and choose their pupils, charters are open to all students and allocate scarce openings via lotteries. The large majority of charters are run by non-profit organizations and thus harder to charge with profit-taking at the expense of public schools.

Yet charters, too, have become charged with ideology. Efforts to create them have often met with staunch resistance from teachers unions and other organizations representing traditional public schools. Many liberals see charters as little more than vouchers in sheep's clothing, another plot to privatize and undermine public education. So charters, too, have been slow to spread in many states.

That's why this week is School Choice Week. While school choice has steadily advanced over the last two decades, primarily through the expansion of charters, the fact remains that the large majority of middle- and lower-income parents don't have any meaningful choices for their children. They're stuck with local schools that too often range from inadequate to shockingly bad, and they can't afford to buy access to better ones.

Changing this will require a lot more in the way of discipline, good faith, and smart thinking on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Many conservatives have proved more interested in using vouchers as a political club than actually making them work on behalf of students. Students participating in the longest-lived and most well-studied voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, score no better on standardized tests than similar students who attended regular public schools.

Indeed, vouchers have become so tainted in discussion and practice that many conservatives now favor re-branded voucher programs that work through the tax code: Instead of getting a voucher for X amount of money to attend a private school, you get a "tuition tax credit" for X amount of money spent to attend a private school. A variation on the program was created in Arizona granting taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for "donations" to private schools. This soon spawned a corrupt system of log-rolling wherein private school parents gave donations to schools on behalf of each other's children.

The legislation, moreover, required that donations be funneled through "non-profit" middleman organizations run by, incredibly, the very same state legislators who wrote the legislation in the first place. These selfless public servants then skimmed off some of the money to lease luxury cars for themselves, give jobs to relatives, and rent space from for-profit corporations they owned. Making free government money available with no oversight turns out to have some drawbacks.

Indeed, both vouchers and tax credit programs suffer from the same underlying design flaw: they trust parental choice in a free market to, by itself, ensure that students will attend good schools. Notably, even Milton Friedman thought this was a bad idea. That's why he proposed that vouchers be limited to "approved institutions." He didn't spell out how approval would work in much detail, but the smartest balance between flexibility and accountability looks very much like the process charter schools are subject to today.

Yet conservatives have continued to flog vouchers and tax credits for obviously partisan reasons. This has led to the spectacle of national attention given to the "D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program," a small, benign, and not particularly effective effort that at its core is nothing more than its name suggests: a program that awards scholarships to a small group of poor families to partially offset the cost of attending private school in a medium-sized mid-Atlantic city. But because that city is the nation's capital and the scholarships are understood to be "vouchers," no less than Speaker of the House John Boehner threw his weight behind legislation expanding the program last year.

These tactics only work if liberal interest groups take the bait. And to their discredit, they have. When Democrats last took control of Congress, they were pressured by national teachers unions to cut funding for the Opportunity Scholarships, for precisely the same political reasons that led Boehner to support them. So even as President Obama sends his children to private school in the District of Columbia, Democrats were preventing poor black children from doing the same.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, whose interest in the welfare of disadvantaged children is normally confined to making sure that they have less of it, gleefully plastered the Washington, D.C., Metro system with pro-Opportunity Scholarship billboards in 2009 featuring a rainbow of minority children and the civil rights-ish slogan "Let Me Rise." The whole debate is a farce and an embarrassment for Democrats.

More broadly, liberal groups stand as the biggest obstacle to the expansion of charter schools, even as minority parents line up for the chance to send their children to charters and the best schools of choice achieve results on behalf of poor children that are unmatched by nearby regular public schools. Anyone visiting a good charter school built in a high-poverty neighborhood--and if you live or work in Washington, D.C., there's probably one within walking distance--will find people who have literally dedicated their lives to improving the well-being of the disadvantaged. Denouncing them from the left as con artists or agents of educational apartheid brings nothing but shame to progressive education policy.

So the challenge during School Choice Week, as well as the other 51 weeks of the year, is to do more than just promote school choice, an idea that, whether they realize it or not, pretty much everyone already supports. The far tougher problem is to create a set of political conditions that make meaningful school choice possible for a much larger number of students than receive it today.

We can start by purging the worst rhetoric from the school choice conversation. Dick Morris may support school choice, but Dick Morris is also a repugnant ideologue who says that teachers unions are "thugs" who have "destroyed public education in America." Featuring him as a school choice supporter simply confirms the worst fears of choice opponents. Liberals who aim similar vitriol at charter schools are no better. Politicians on both sides of the aisle who use programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship as a political football are putting the interests of children behind selfish political considerations.

Then we need to acknowledge that school choice has proven to be a far more difficult idea to implement than its supporters originally supposed. Choice requires both information and consumers who are well equipped to use it. Schools are highly complex organizations whose workings aren't always apparent at first glance. It's very difficult for parents who have no personal experience of having attended a good school to pick and choose among school choice options for their children. Looks can be deceiving--shiny new facilities and well-organized classrooms can mask poor teaching and incoherent curricula. Schools vying for students in the market tend, like any competitor, to present a self-interested view of themselves. Parents need much better information about school performance, and education in its interpretation, in order to make good choices on behalf of their children.

They also need good schools from which to choose. Opening up K-12 education to the free market does not magically conjure from the air organizations that know how to educate children. Two decades into the charter experiment, the number of organizations like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) that have consistently demonstrated the ability to build and run more than a handful of high-quality schools can be counted on, if not one hand, certainly two. That's why while results at KIPP are stellar, studies suggest that student performance at the average charter school is often no better than at regular public schools nearby. The school choice market requires major investments in the quality of both supply and demand.

Even then, the market will still require strong oversight from public officials to grant the "approved" status Friedman envisioned over a half-century ago--and the willingness to revoke that approval when performance is sub-par.

These are all achievable goals that, if realized, will have lasting benefits for large numbers of children. But they won't be met if school choice continues to be ghettoized as one of those eternal points of division that ideologues would rather never resolve.

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Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. 

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