Choice Programs Remain Tiny and Restrictive

Published September 1, 2003

Last summer, supporters of school choice hailed Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the historic Supreme Court decision upholding Cleveland’s school choice program, as an important victory. The decision removed legal barriers that had previously discouraged all but the most motivated lawmakers from embracing choice policies.

One year later, however, it is clear the Zelman decision marked only the beginning, rather than the end, of an education reform saga. School choice programs around the country remain tiny and restrictive. Too many American families are still compelled to send their children to dangerous and dysfunctional public schools. Millions more are unhappily stuck with an otherwise passable school that has failed their particular child.

The Court’s decision upholding school choice has motivated legislators across the country to propose new choice programs. Colorado has passed a new law authorizing vouchers for some low-income students in that state. States that already have school choice laws are likewise considering significant expansions of those programs. Nevertheless, school choice programs remain stunted by rules and regulations that are the products of political compromise.

Restrictions Abound

Plagued by limited scholarship funds and enrollment caps, most school choice programs are oversubscribed. Families in Milwaukee and Cleveland must compete in annual lotteries for scholarships, with the losers relegated to waiting lists. Legislation proposed for the District of Columbia may fund only 2,000 scholarships for students now enrolled in its disastrous public schools.

Moreover, many programs offer scholarships in amounts too low to provide students with the widest array of options. In Ohio, voucher lottery winners receive no more than $2,500. While it is a miracle of American generosity and thrift that more than 50 Cleveland private schools have agreed to educate children for that amount, lawmakers must make a larger portion of education funding portable if these programs are to realize their potential.

Some choice programs, such as Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship program, apply only to children in “failing schools,” as determined by overall performance measures. No provision exists in Florida for an otherwise marginal school that is failing a particular child. As a result, many Florida children in need of choices do not qualify.

Finally, most school choice programs are geographically hobbled, applying only to urban centers. The Ohio program, for example, applies to any school district operating under federal judicial supervision. But Cleveland is the only district in the state that qualifies for choice under that definition.

The proposed District of Columbia program not only restricts the location of its beneficiaries, it restricts the location of their educational options. Participants will have to choose schools located inside the District itself, a nonsensical move that will bar students from excellent, cost-effective schools in its Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

The Zelman decision capped 12 years of litigation over the constitutionality of school choice. But if the wheels of justice grind slowly, the pace of real social change is often slower still.

Existing programs in Florida, Cleveland, Arizona, and elsewhere have proven false opponents’ suggestions that lower-income parents are too foolish or inattentive to make good choices for their children, and the success of those programs has bolstered a growing consensus that all families deserve educational freedom.

But the school choice movement’s goal of choice for all families will remain elusive until it is able to alter a political dynamic that favors half-loaf solutions to educational crises.

Marie Gryphon, an attorney, is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute and author of “True Private Choice: A Practical Guide To School Reform in the Wake of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.” Her email address is [email protected].