Aiming for universal school choice
September 22, 2020
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Universal choice is the principled—and pragmatic—education policy. Every Oklahoma family that wants choice should have it—now.
The school choice movement is at a crossroads. Decades of success have positioned the movement to aim higher—for the still-unrealized dream of universal school choice. And a few high-profile challenges have also made it clear that the movement will not be secure until it makes a firm commitment to universal choice. As the pandemic forces states to rethink education policy in the coming years, now is the time to put universal choice at the forefront.
School choice programs allow families to use public funds devoted to their student to attend the school of their choice, public or private. That puts parents in charge of education, as they should be. The best-designed programs, which are known as Education Savings Accounts, give the funds to families in the form of a dedicated account that can be spent on any educational expenses—not just tuition, but also supplemental services.
However, existing choice programs are limited. Sometimes they’re limited to serving specific student populations, like low-income students—or, what amounts to much the same thing, students assigned to low-performing schools in the government school monopoly. Sometimes they’re just limited in total size. Sometimes they’re limited in what private-school parents are allowed to choose—for example, parents can only choose schools that maintain specific kinds of admission policies. Imposing a lot of unnecessary process requirements on schools, which rarely contribute to actual transparency, is another way of limiting school access.
Universal choice would mean getting rid of all those limits. It would mean every family with a pre-K–12 student that wants choice can have it—no arbitrary restrictions based on demographics or program size or anything else. And any private school that meets ordinary health and safety requirements should be eligible. If a school satisfies the attendance laws, it should be an available choice.
It’s important to come back to first principles on a regular basis. Life is always tearing us away from our most important commitments. There is never a lack of short-term opportunities to bag a quick gain for the cause, if only we’re willing to settle for “the cause” being something less than its full, real self.
It isn’t even always wrong to make reasonable compromises. But it’s imperative not to lose your way as you do so. You can get a short-term gain by compromising, yes—but what counts as a “gain”? What is your purpose, the goal toward which you are seeking gains? It’s nefariously easy to get so busy compromising away the big vision that we lose track of what we’re supposed to be gaining.
Hence the importance of a regular return to first principles. The choice movement has gained a great deal. A supermajority of U.S. states—30 of them—have school choice programs, plus two territories as well (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). Eighteen states, including Oklahoma, have two or more programs! As a result, over half a million students attend private schools using public funds. That’s a long way from the tiny voucher program in Milwaukee that launched the modern school choice movement in 1990.
The question is, what is the choice movement going to do with that success? Keep racking up programs that are limited in the number of students they can serve, and in the schools those students are allowed to choose? Or think about what it would mean to take things to the next level? There are almost 51 million K-12 students in public schools; while I have no doubt that a lot of them are in the right place, and wouldn’t exercise choice if they had it, it seems like the time has come to aim higher.
There are two reasons to aim higher. Pragmatically, it’s politically expedient to move toward universal school choice. And on principle, universal choice is the right thing to do.
One of the great ironies of life is that the least pragmatic thing to be is a pure pragmatist. “Forget about high ideals and just do what works” may get you by in the short run. In the long run, however, the only thing that actually “works” is high ideals. Without them, cynicism and distrust erode social cooperation, and there is no basis on which to settle disputes about what is permitted.
We see that principle illustrated in the history of the modern choice movement. The more we’ve compromised the ideal of universal choice, the more headaches we’ve ended up with. Bigger and broader programs are more stable and thrive better.
Earlier programs, like Milwaukee’s, were created with especially strict limits. That was a concession to the political reality at the time, and it was probably necessary. But it also saddled those programs with permanent political weaknesses. Because few people could benefit from these programs, few were invested in defending them. Meanwhile, programs created later, when the movement was stronger, have fewer limitations and are thus able to mobilize a larger power base to defend the program politically.
Some of the early programs, like Milwaukee’s, have survived in spite of their limitations. You know how they’ve done that? By keeping the larger goal of universal choice in view, and gradually working to remove the limitations and/or create new programs to serve those who aren’t served by the older ones! By broadening access to choice, they broaden the choice coalition.
This, by the way, is the answer to the old saw about how school choice will inevitably lead to government meddling in private-school curricula. Most choice programs are now over a decade old, yet none of them has produced even the first stages of the kind of meddling critics darkly warn against. You know why? Thousands of people march on state capitals when the programs are under threat.
Think about how hard it is to introduce even small reforms to Social Security or Medicare. These programs are universal, which makes them politically self-supporting. By contrast, while reforming, say, welfare programs is not always a cake walk, it’s something you can do. Most voters don’t feel that their own interests are at stake in the program.
Universal choice is expedient in another way as well. It makes the programs work better. Choice improves education by taking coercion out of the educational relationship, allowing parents and schools to match up and collaborate in a genuinely voluntary way. So the less choice is available, the less effectively the programs improve education—and that affects their political fortunes.
One of the high-profile challenges that points the movement toward universal choice is the debacle in Louisiana. It’s the only choice program that actually harmed educational outcomes. The state imposed so many arbitrary controls on the program, schools that actually wanted to spend their time educating students chose not to participate in it. While the nation’s other choice programs have performed well, that one bad apple put a good deal of egg on the movement’s collective face.
But universal choice isn’t just politically expedient. It’s right. Limited choice comes from an assumption of paternalism and control—comfortable elites who think ordinary parents, and especially poor and minority parents, can’t be trusted with the education of their own children. That’s better than the more extreme paternalism of the government school monopoly, but not enough better. A firm commitment to the American ideals of equality and freedom points directly to universal school choice.
Here, too, a high-profile challenge to the movement points toward the desirability of universal choice. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a coherent “education reform movement” that simultaneously embraced accountability reforms for public schools and the expansion of private school choice. But the people in the movement who prioritized accountability became more and more extremely paternalistic and controlling in the 2010s. This culminated in the federal Common Core debacle and other developments that drove a wedge between “accountability” reformers, obsessed with endless standardized testing to the exclusion of well-rounded education, and “choice” reformers whose ultimate goal is to put parents in charge.
For decades, choice advocates toned down their commitment to full equality and freedom in education, in order to make nice with the technocratic testers. Now that the technocrats have gone their own way, not by our choice but by theirs, and have dramatically crashed and burned, why not embrace our principles and stand on them? Let the past suffice for finding “middle ways” between systems that control people and systems that liberate them.
The pandemic will force all 50 states to reevaluate education policy in the coming years. Even now, we are starting to see the first shifts from the necessarily frantic “emergency mode” to a more long-term rethinking of policy for the new reality.
What will the school choice movement have to say in this important moment? It should unapologetically embrace universal choice as the pragmatic and principled education policy, not just for families struggling to find school solutions during a pandemic, but for all times.