| March 2, 2011

School Choice Is Back

School vouchers, like the Republican Party, are back in a big way. The question for vouchers, as for the GOP, is: Have they learned their lesson?

Just a few years ago, the smart people were declaring vouchers dead. “An Idea Whose Time Has Gone: Conservatives Abandon Their Support for School Vouchers” declared the headline of a much-discussed article in Washington Monthly. The article declared that vouchers were on the way out, permanently.

That was indeed a rough time for vouchers, but I went out on a limb and predicted that the smart people were wrong—vouchers would be back. “Where would we be today if Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail had just said, ‘Well, here I am in jail—I guess I’ve lost the fight’? King knew he wasn’t in jail because he was losing. He was in jail because he was winning. And the cowards who put him in jail knew it just as well as he did.”

Over the years, my predictive track record hasn’t been perfect. So let me tell you, I’ve never been more relieved to be right.

A New Wave of Ambitious Choice Proposals

The new wave of Republican governors and legislatures across the country has embraced private school choice as, well, as its reform of choice. Bills to create big new school choice programs are being introduced in states from Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Oklahoma. It seems likely we’re on the cusp of yet another huge expansion of choice.

The most exciting idea is Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a concept cooked up by Matt Ladner and Nick Dranias at the Goldwater Institute. It allows parents who remove their children from public school to receive annual funding in a savings account that would be reserved for educational uses—ranging from private school tuition to online instruction to college expenses later on. This is exactly like vouchers as we’ve always known them, except the funding is available for a wider range of purposes and any unused funds can be saved and spent on education in future years.

This solves a lot of problems at once. It provides choice to every student who wants it, is more flexible for parents, creates incentives for schools to innovate, and is more likely to survive political and legal challenges. ESAs are now being considered in several states, including Florida and Arizona. In Oklahoma, both Dan Lips and Brandon Dutcher have promoted them in columns in The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper.

States seeking bold education reforms had plenty of other options besides vouchers. Even if we set aside the dumb ideas and look only at the good ones, there are plenty to choose from. Tenure reform and “teacher quality” are all the rage these days. Charter schools could be greatly expanded. A move to strengthen state-level academic standards and accountability could have been a successful response to the Obama administration’s push for national standards under federal government control. A really bold state could repeal the laws enacted in the 1960s that first allowed teachers to bargain collectively, which is the root of the mess we’ve been in ever since.

All those would have been fine choices. In fact, all of them (even the repeal of collective bargaining) are actually being pursued in some states. But if you step back and look nationally, the only reform that’s high on everyone’s agenda is private school choice.

So vouchers are back from the dead. The question now is, are they resurrected in triumph, or are they really an undead abomination? Are vouchers, like Gandalf, “returned from death” in a new and more powerful form, ready to do battle with evil once again? Or are they like zombies, mindlessly dragging themselves up out of the grave with no will of their own and no purpose?

The smart people will say it’s the latter. Vouchers don’t work—after all, Milwaukee schools are still awful. They’re a moribund idea with nothing new to contribute. Republicans favor them because they’re mindlessly enslaved to a failed free-market ideology, just like the walking dead under the control of a wicked sorcerer.

They’re wrong on the facts. Vouchers do, in fact, work. Ten studies have examined how vouchers impact students who use them—studies using the gold-standard method of social science, random assignment that separates treatment and control groups by lottery. Nineteen studies have examined how vouchers impact public schools. This large body of high-quality evidence consistently finds that vouchers improve results. (See the forthcoming updated edition of my report for the Foundation for Educational Choice, “A Win-Win Solution.”)

However, although the smart people are wrong on the facts, they inadvertently point to a real danger. Although the research consistently finds a benefit from vouchers, the size of the benefit is usually modest. That’s why Milwaukee schools are still dysfunctional, for example—it’s like trying to empty the Atlantic with a bucket.

The voucher programs we have created up to now are not nearly good enough. These programs are tightly restricted in the number and type of students they can serve, the amount of resources they provide parents for choice, and the variety of choices they’re allowed to offer. All these limitations prevent existing programs from transforming education the way it needs to be transformed.

The good news is that the bills being introduced in most states are ambitious. They’re not as good as I’d like—it would be comforting to see at least one state trying to enact universal choice. But they’re a lot better than the status quo. Some of these bills would extend choice to as much as two-thirds of the population.

The bad news is that school choice bills often start out that way. Then they get compromised in the legislative sausage grinder, as legislators lose their nerve. That has always been our undoing in the past. The question is whether anything will be different now.

If all we get out of the current moment is a bunch of new programs that look just like the old programs, we will have failed. If we can’t reach higher now, when conditions are optimal, we’ll have lost our best chance to get vouchers out of their cage. Vouchers really will be moribund, at least for the current generation.

The Need for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The central problem is that vouchers as they currently exist don’t do nearly enough to empower entrepreneurs to create new schools. All we’re doing is moving kids from existing public schools to existing private schools. That’s an improvement, as the empirical evidence consistently shows. However, it’s only a marginal improvement. It’s not enough by a long shot.

In education—as in every other field of human endeavor from medicine to religion to manufacturing—innovators can’t move in to produce and sustain systematic reform until they have a customer base with the size, resources, and freedom to support them. The government school monopoly prevents this from occurring, because most parents won’t pay a second time for an education when they’ve already paid taxes to support the “free” government system.

Private schools are left to serve niche markets—parents seeking religious instruction, parents seeking decent special education services, parents seeking prestige and status. And it’s well known that niche market providers are always the least likely to produce useful innovations.

The government system also imposes a more intangible burden on innovation. Whatever the government system does is treated as normative—the normal or default way to provide education. The tyranny of the “one best way” limits the horizons of innovation.

So the existence of a government monopoly on education doesn’t just crush educational quality in public schools. It does so in private schools as well. Existing private schools today are a pale shadow of what true education could be, if we went beyond moving a few kids around and systematically liberated parents and schools from the shackles of the government monopoly.

Current voucher programs, operating under severe restrictions, don’t free up enough new customers with enough resources and freedom to change this. Only a bold leap forward to create bigger, better programs can break the monopoly’s stranglehold.

This is what makes ESAs such a revolutionary idea. They create a large customer base with substantial resources (though they still save money compared to the outrageous expense of government schooling). And by giving parents unprecedented flexibility in how they use education funding, ESAs would create incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Some voucher supporters are advocating caution right now. They’re worried because in the past, the voucher movement has made big promises of radical change, and then failed to deliver. This has helped opponents discredit the movement.

They’re right about that much. For the last 20 years we’ve been making promises based on what a true, unrestricted voucher program would do. Then we’ve created weak, limited programs—which, naturally, didn’t deliver on the promises.

But the answer is not to stop promising big results. It’s to start delivering them.

With the educational disaster going on all around us, marginal change is not enough. Moreover, opportunities to enact any kind of change are extraordinarily rare, and taking advantage of such opportunities is extraordinarily costly. If we waste this precious moment producing yet another set of feeble programs, shame on us.

I’m not standing in judgment of the people who worked hard and made big sacrifices to get us the programs we have now. When the Milwaukee voucher program was created in 1990, the world wasn’t ready for universal vouchers. The people who created that program had to compromise in order to get anything. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are. There would be no voucher movement at all.

But we must understand that those compromises came with a cost. Just as they did what was necessary to move forward in 1990, we must do what is necessary to move forward now. That means demanding a higher standard—programs that generously serve all students, not just handing out ten dollars apiece to left-handed color-blind Eskimos.

Political support for universal vouchers is achievable. And it doesn’t have to be limited to Republican politicians. There’s a big new vanguard of radical school reformers in the Democratic Party who hate the teacher unions even more than Republicans do. Up to now they’ve put their hopes in building up celebrity school-system leaders like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. But recent events have shown them that you can’t fix the system just by putting the right people in charge of it. They need to be shown the deeper problem. They’re ripe for a new approach that would comprehensively realign the system’s incentives.

Some of the existing constituencies for school choice will have to make adjustments. Social conservatives who support vouchers for cultural reasons will need to understand that private schools, just as much as public schools, need the life-giving energy that only competition can provide. And the existing private schools themselves, as niche players, will be challenged by the idea of creating a dynamic marketplace where entrepreneurs can invent new ways of doing things.

But it has to happen, so we might as well get started. The American people have made it clear that they’re not going to tolerate another generation of educational failure, and they’re not going to be taken in by the system’s old excuses. It’s calling on us to reach for a higher standard. Let’s answer the call.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.

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