Patrick B. McGuigan | December 18, 2015

Scholar says school choice ‘is now mainstream,’ but fears regulatory overreach

Patrick B. McGuigan

Scholar Jay P. Greene has raised a red flag in a red state, telling Oklahoma policymakers to tread cautiously when considering tougher “accountability” measures in exchange for more school choice.

In a recent interview concerning the national “state of play” for school choice, Greene, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, told me that many of the regulatory models advanced in recent reforms “would hold private schools to a model that is more strenuous than what is required of public schools.”

Greene frets because, he says, “an increasing number of national school choice advocates” would settle for standards tougher than the government systems face, in hopes of moving the ball down the field for broader choice objectives.

The problem, as he detailed in a December 3 speech to the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, is that most tax-financed public education systems have few strictures for accountability, including those for preschool and higher education. As he and other analysts have documented, “It is simply not the case that public entities have to prove they are accountable for results.”

Greene contends the effect of higher regulatory burdens “would be to drive away quality and supply. It would undermine the mission(s) of many private schools.” Within the choice movement, regulatory strictures would have the effect of choosing “charters over vouchers.” For choice advocates to agree to higher regulation, he says, would “concede bargaining chips unnecessarily.”

Putting a fine point on his thesis, Professor Greene believes greater regulation is the greatest threat to school choice—and that efforts to revise the failed models of mandatory state-mandated “testing regimes” is the point of the spear for the anti-choicers.

For all the concerns he raised, in our exchange Greene said he is encouraged because school choice “is now mainstream. When I first began working on this, it was common to encounter the assumption that ‘experts’ and not parents should be in charge of children’s schooling.”

He continued, “There has been an amazing change in just two decades. Choice is accepted in both national political party platforms. … We’re arguing over the details. The principle has been advanced.”

He concluded that the greatest opportunity before the school choice movement is the possibility of enacting sweeping reform in the model of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

ESA proposals come in varied packages, but share the objective of allowing parents or guardians to receive debit cards or other means through state education systems. ESAs would be allowed to finance schooling at bona fide educational institutions or vendors chosen by the consumer (students and parents) rather than the government.

Greene’s broad coverage of the promise of choice and the peril of regulation was well-timed for the knowledge and edification of lawmakers and citizens in our state, which has seen slow but notable growth in support for broader education options.

The most recent sounding of public sentiment was an Oklahoma survey released over Thanksgiving weekend which found 70 percent of respondents support choice—including 79 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats. The survey also found that ESAs had an 18-point advantage among Oklahomans.

As enthusiasm for school choice rises across the political spectrum, opponents remain determined and willing to spend lots of money, some of it from the public well, to reverse, cap, or smother choice.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of school-age children most in need of better education remain stuck in schools based on ZIP code, rather than on the preferences of students or parents.

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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