| August 4, 2011

The Year of School Choice

When I bet Jay Mathews of The Washington Post that school choice would have a banner year in 2011, I had no idea what kind of forces I was tampering with. This has been far and away the biggest year ever for school choice, with an unprecedented string of victories across the nation.

It all started earlier this year with a report I wrote for the Friedman Foundation, “A Win-Win Solution.” It marshaled the empirical evidence, which consistently shows that school choice has positive effects on education for both the students who use it (who get better options) and the students who remain in public schools (which improve in response to healthy competition).

Jay’s nefarious strategy was to agree with all my points. “I see nothing morally, economically or politically wrong with vouchers,” he wrote. “I have never thought that they drained public schools of vital resources. I think a low-income family that gets the chance to choose a private school that suits their child should do so.” Stop, Jay! I can’t take much more!

He was playing rope-a-dope. Muhammad Ali would have been proud.

Jay’s response was that school choice would fail because it wouldn’t attract political support: “Many voters will continue to resist sending their tax dollars to private schools, particularly with the pressures to cut back government spending that are likely to be with us for many years.”

Now, I had been saying for a few years that choice would make a big comeback. Just weeks before Jay took me on, I had predicted in Perspective that 2011 was the year. (You really did read it here first.) Voters have always supported choice, I pointed out to Jay. And pressure to balance budgets works in favor of choice, since choice saves tons of money.

But we’ve always had those advantages. I thought 2011 would be the big year because the major obstacle to choice, the teacher unions, are losing clout. Key Democratic constituencies are increasingly angry with them and mobilized against them. This in turn emboldens squishy Republicans to move against them, since standing against the teacher unions is no longer a right-wing position. No one believes the teacher unions speak for children any more; no one even believes they speak for teachers.

They’re down to their merely material advantages—money and warm bodies. In politics, those can make you powerful in the short term, but not in the long term. If the key gatekeepers of American culture come to regard you as an enemy of the public interest, that’s when you want to start checking your parachute and survival supplies. Moreover, when everyone realizes you aren’t a long-term player anymore, even your short-term advantage vaporizes quickly.

The fortunes of school choice have always swung upward and downward, and on each downswing the naysayers confidently predict that it’s dead. Then we come roaring back, bigger each time than the last. (You would think they’d be tired of being proven wrong by now.)

So I offered Jay a bet. We’d set a bar for how well school choice would have to do this year for everyone to see that 2011 is its best year ever. If we cleared the bar, Jay would have to buy me dinner at a Milwaukee restaurant of my choice. If not, I’d buy him dinner at a D.C. restaurant of his choice.

He took the bet. And school choice delivered.

We agreed that the over/under bar would be seven school choice enactments. A “school choice” program for these purposes would mean private-school choice—charters don’t count. An “enactment” would be either the creation of a new school choice program or the expansion of an existing one, by expanding the number of students eligible or expanding the pool of funds available.

The most interesting case that didn’t count as an enactment was in Oklahoma. The state has a program offering vouchers to special-needs students, but rogue school districts were illegally denying students access. So Oklahoma passed legislation allowing families to get their vouchers directly from the state. I joked to Jay that I considered this an important “expansion” of school choice but wouldn’t count it for our bet.

In the end we got 19 enactments, just shy of triple the bar. New programs were enacted in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Indiana (two programs), North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Oklahoma got a new tax-credit scholarship program, which gives tax breaks for donations to private-school scholarship funds. Indiana enacted what will be the biggest school choice program in history, a voucher that will reach half a million students when the program scales up in two years. And Arizona enacted the nation’s first “education savings account,” a new form of school choice that’s very similar to a voucher in some respects, but designed to create more efficient financial incentives without sacrificing educational opportunity.

Existing programs were expanded in Florida (two programs), Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio (two programs), Utah, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. The iconic programs that started the modern school choice movement in Milwaukee and Cleveland were expanded, as well as Florida’s nation-leading programs.

The editors of The Wall Street Journal have declared this “the year of school choice.” And the year’s not over! As of this writing there are at least two states where I hear we may get enactments before the year’s out. The obsessive-compulsive in me really wants to get to 21 and make it an even triple—or failing that, at least get to a nice, round 20.

As if to drive home the point that the unions have begun their slide into oblivion, on the day the Journal’s editorial came out the big buzz in the education world was the National Education Association’s unprecedented decision to endorse Barack Obama for re-election a full year ahead of the normal schedule. The president got a boost to his fundraising, while the unions gave up hope of influencing the administration during an election year. There couldn’t be a clearer indication of who’s in the driver’s seat now.

Don’t get me wrong. School choice has a long road ahead of it. Only a tiny fraction of the nation’s children have access to choice. Our work will not be over as long as there’s even one family that is held captive, as a matter of policy, to a government monopoly on schooling.

More importantly, existing school choice programs are pathetically inadequate. They have to be transformed to support real educational innovation. Right now, all we’re doing is moving kids from existing public schools to existing private schools. Our programs aren’t designed in ways that will attract educational entrepreneurs who create innovative new models of schooling.

Entrepreneurs need a customer base with size, strength, and suffrage. They need enough clients (students) with enough ability to support their work (that’s the dollar value of the voucher) and enough freedom to make real choices (without unnecessary restrictions). Our tiny, underfunded, overregulated school choice programs can’t attract or sustain entrepreneurial innovation.

Just look at the excitement and impatience that surrounds these entrepreneurs right now, in the charter school movement, where they’re still hobbled at one leg to government control. The nation has been stuck with a 19th century model of schooling for too long, and it’s sick of it. That’s what’s made charter school innovators the hottest names in education reform. Just think how big a deal it would be if we could attract those innovators to start private schools, which would really make them free to innovate?

This was the other argument Jay made to me in that original article. He says the entrepreneurial innovators are doing great things in the charter school space because they “prefer to work in public schools.” I say they’re in charter schools because that’s the only space where they’ve ever had sufficient support to operate. School choice programs haven’t been designed to give them what they need. We must change that, and we will.

In the meantime, where can I find a columnist who’ll bet me I won’t inherit a fortune from a long-lost relative in 2012?

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

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