How to Prompt New Schools With Choice Programs

Published February 15, 2014

At the International School Choice Research and Reform Academic Conference in January, researchers, practitioners, and advocates convened to compare and contrast the state of school choice in the United States and across many European and South American countries. One thing was clear—the conversation regarding school choice has shifted to implementation. 

Private school choice programs are here to stay, so what steps should policymakers take to ensure they operate optimally? The promise of private school choice, in particular, relies on a steady supply of high-quality private schools willing to participate in such programs. In the short term, under-enrolled private schools can absorb increased demand. In the long term, however, policymakers would do well to think of innovative solutions that will entice new schools to enter the marketplace and encourage existing schools to scale up. 

Lawmakers must address at least three school supply barriers if choice programs are to meet these goals. 

Calculating Enrollment
The first barrier is deceiving in its simplicity—it’s the inefficient allocation of available private school seats.

Every year, private school choice program administrators are faced with the difficult task of allocating private school seats in a way that satisfies eligible student demand with the available supply of grade-appropriate spots in participating private schools. If this task is performed less than optimally, viable seats remain unfilled and eligible applicants are turned away from the program.

This kind of congestion in the student/school assignment process is certainly unfortunate for the students affected by this barrier, but it also has serious long-term implications for the private school market. Participating private schools cannot adequately prepare for teacher hiring, facility expansion, and textbook purchases, for example, if their perception of the demand for private seats by voucher or tuition tax credit is clouded.

The administrators of the Louisiana Scholarship Program avoid this interruption to the market signal by using a “Roth lottery” to assign voucher students to private schools. This multistage matching algorithm, designed by Nobel Prize laureate Alvin E. Roth in response to the waste of transplantable donor organs, ensures the maximum number of students is matched to open seats in private schools. Choice program administrators in other states would be smart to investigate whether this matching technique can be adopted to improve their seat allocation process. 

Finding Facilities
The second barrier to maximizing private school supply is accessing facilities. 

Charter schools’ woes in this regard tend to dominate the headlines, but private schools can face serious facilities barriers too. In certain cases, traditional public school districts flex their monopoly advantage to prevent new private schools from establishing or existing private schools from expanding. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program, provides an instructive example. In 2010 the Milwaukee Public School District (MPS) was spending over $1 million per year to maintain 27 empty buildings. Meanwhile, enrollment in the voucher program was continuing to expand annually by the hundreds. 


Source: Student enrollment figures for 2006-07 through 2010-11 are from the SCDP Descriptive Report on Participating Schools. Figures for 2011-12 through 2013-14 are from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction:

In an effort to accommodate more students, St. Marcus Lutheran School Superintendent Henry Tyson attempted to purchase a vacant MPS building close to the school’s current campus in early 2013, but MPS refused to sell the property. When the building eventually sold, a condition of sale prohibited the future use of the building for any purpose that would “diminish the annual average number of pupils enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

Instead of preventing sale or renting of unusued buildings, states and localities should assist current and aspiring private school operators in accessing appropriate school facilities.

There are numerous examples of states intervening to ensure charters have access to empty school buildings or allocating grants for the construction and development of charter school facilities. Perhaps it’s time to consider similar interventions for private schools that accept choice students. 

Innovative Thinking
The third barrier is a failure to think outside the box. 

Choice programs are intended to give students new options, not just variations on the same theme. If new providers are expected to simply replicate the structure of existing public schools, innovation is limited. To accommodate hybrid offerings and unbundled courses, administrators will have to have flexibility in configuring student schedules, coordinating multiple providers, and taking an individualized approach to reimbursement. 

States overlook school supply dynamics at their own peril. It’s not hard to imagine how a dearth of high-quality private school seats could derail even a politically popular, fiscally sound voucher or tuition tax-credit program, even one with demonstrated advantages for students’ short term test scores and, more importantly, long term achievement and labor market outcomes. 

Anna J. Egalite ([email protected]) is a doctoral academy fellow in the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. This article is reprinted from the Friedman Foundation’s blog, with permission. Image by Wonderlane.