All children would benefit if parents were given greater freedom of choice, and therefore all parents should be allowed to participate in school choice programs. A program designed only for poor people, Milton Friedman (1998) warned, will be a poor program. Middle- and upper-income voters are unlikely to rally in support of a program that does not benefit themselves, leaving interest groups free to take over and run the program for their own benefit.
Better and more just, then, that programs give all parents a choice and every child a safe and effective school. However, politics often requires compromises and patience.
Because school choice advocates face powerful opposition from organized interests that benefit from the status quo, they must form alliances with groups that disagree with them on some issues. A common compromise is to phase in an ambitious voucher plan over several years.
Phase-in provisions specify that parts of the new program are to be implemented only after the passage of time or some other triggering event. Eligibility may be restricted at first to low-income students, students in particular cities or school districts, or students attending failing public schools. Or the size of the voucher could be small at first and then increase gradually. Phase-in provisions have many benefits, among them: reducing the cost of the program during its early years by limiting the number of pupils who participate; pre-empting charges that the program would benefit wealthy families disproportionately or hurt minorities or low-income students; and giving the private sector time to accommodate new demand by starting new schools or expanding the capacity of existing schools.
Incrementalism is a different strategy whereby school choice supporters endorse a very limited or modest voucher or tax credit plan containing no provisions for later expansion. Supporters then work to expand the program by introducing successive legislation, hoping the “pilot” program creates the informed awareness and support needed for passage of more ambitious programs. Examples of incrementalism include voucher programs operating in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Incrementalism has many of the same benefits as the phase-in strategy, and it has allowed school choice advocates in some parts of the country to clear the barriers to reform that other strategies could not. However, incrementalism can encourage the public to confuse pilot programs with real tests of the school choice concept (Merrifield 2001). A pilot voucher program limited to students from low-income families and nonreligious schools, such as the original Milwaukee program, is not a meaningful test of vouchers. Another weakness of incrementalism is that opponents of choice usually fight as hard against limited plans as against more ambitious ones.
Regardless of the strategies they adopt, school choice advocates ought to look ahead to a school choice program that creates a genuine free market for education, free of the rules and restrictions that hobble current “pilot” programs.
Religious schools, independent nonprofit schools, and for-profit schools must be allowed to participate in school choice programs. Most private schools in the United States today are religiously affiliated because offering religious curricula and subsidies from church members are ways they compete for students against “free” public schools. For-profit schools should be allowed to participate in voucher programs because the ability or willingness of not-for-profit schools to accommodate new demand is too much in question. For-profit schools are more likely to provide innovative offerings that appeal to parents.
A new trend in school reform and education policy is a parent-powered device called the Parent Trigger (Bast et al. 2010). The Parent Trigger allows a majority of parents of children attending a public school to petition for one of several possible reform options. In California, where the first Parent Trigger law was adopted, those choices are (1) close the failing public school and allow parents to choose among nearby public schools; (2) convert the failing school into a charter school; or (3) implement either the “transformation” or “turn-around” strategies described in the national Race to the Top legislation.
The Parent Trigger is a promising new development for several reasons. First, it is very malleable. California’s third option, which is least likely to be successful, could be replaced with vouchers, a very potent remedy for public school failure. Having charters and vouchers in the same piece of legislation brings together two groups of advocates who currently often do not agree on legislative strategies.
Unlike most reform proposals based on empowering parents, the Parent Trigger originates from activists on the political left, not from the center-right coalition. This pedigree and emphasis on grassroots empowerment create an opportunity to get support from Democrats who might otherwise oppose school choice for ideological reasons.
Elected officials like the Parent Trigger idea because it allows them to give back to parents the difficult choice of what to do about failing public schools. Legislators can vote to “let the parents decide,” rather than for an overarching decree that all school districts, even very efficient ones that parents like, must offer charters or vouchers to all parents.
Most importantly, the Parent Trigger does not replace one set of interest groups – public school administrators, teachers, and politicians – with another composed of private schools, chartering organizations, and entrepreneurs. Rather, it puts the power to act in the hands of the only people who do not have a potential conflict of interest: parents.
Recommended reading: Milton Friedman, “The only solution is competition,” School Reform N