New Book Champions Parents as School Consumers

Published December 30, 2014

Review of The School Choice Journey: School Vouchers and the Empowerment of Urban Families, Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf (foreword by Sen. Joe Lieberman), Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 236 pp., $95.00.

It’s difficult to fathom why there hasn’t been an academic book dedicated to examining a specific example of a school choice program since 2002. Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf rectify that grave omission with their recently published collaboration, The School Choice Journey: School Vouchers and the Empowerment of Urban Families.

Although the wait has been regrettable, Stewart and Wolf end the 12-year drought with a flood of relevant, extensively researched information. In this instance, the authors report on data accumulated from the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for low-income families given the choice to send their children to participating schools. DCOSP is the first federally funded school voucher program.

The authors conclude the DC scholarships—essentially vouchers—provide benefits evidenced not only by higher academic achievement for students but also by parent participation in the education process. Stewart and Wolf document what happens when parents become true consumers of educational choice rather than passive clients of government-funded programs. In short, the parents’ consumer behavior in determining their children’s education options directly results in enhanced adult citizenship.

Parents Protest for School Choice

Stewart is president of Patten University, an Oakland, California-based online higher education institution. Wolf is professor of education policy and Endowed 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas. The duo spent 10 years researching and conducting interviews with DCOSP participants.

As noted above, DCOSP is a federally funded voucher program. President George W. Bush signed the legislation in 2004, but President Barack Obama scuttled funding for it in 2009. In 2011, Washington parents conducted marches and protests to reinstate the program. Their efforts were joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CN) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Lieberman, in fact, provides the foreword to The School Choice Journey. Lieberman cosponsored the 2003 District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act, which opened the door for Opportunity Scholarships (vouchers) for low-income DC families. The vouchers are redeemable for qualified families at participating public, private, and charter schools. As a result of Lieberman’s efforts, the vouchers were increased in 2011 from $7,500 to $8,000 for primary school students and $12,000 for high school students.

Reduced Safety Concerns

The authors conducted five years of research between 2004 and 2008, gathering information from 37 focus groups comprised of 110 DC families representing 180 OSP students. The focus groups allowed Wolf and Stewart to collect information from middle-school, elementary and high-school students and their respective parents as well as community stakeholders.

The authors conclude the OSP parents placed their children in the program for three main reasons where choice is ranked most important, followed by academic improvement and religion. For many of the parents interviewed during their children’s first year in OSP, choice meant safety for the students. By the third year of the program, however, a strong majority of the parents had shifted their views from safety being the primary attraction of school choice to such academic matters as curriculum, academic rigor and class size. One parent succinctly summed up the decreased prioritization of safety: “Well I think once you pull your children out of public schools and you get comfortable with the private atmosphere, safety becomes no longer an issue because they are safe. So then you can focus on what is important, and that is the curriculum.”

The authors note that students echoed their parents’ sentiments increasingly after their fourth year enrolled in OSP schools. For their part, parents became far more involved with their children’s education. Rather than relying on materials sent to the students’ homes, parents actively participated in school events and face-to-face contact with teachers and school administrators.

Don’t Stop the Journey

Stewart and Wolf conclude that encouraging parents to behave as consumers of their children’s education results in the following: “School choice consumers accepted that it was their responsibility to ensure that they school they selected was of high quality and a good fit for their child’s needs. Parents with a consumer orientation toward choice tended to describe to us an extensive school choice process that relied more on personal actions with school staff than on school publicity or the judgments of program officials.”

“[I]t is both false and demeaning to say that low-income families are not capable of selecting quality schools for their children,” writes Lieberman in his foreword, adding: “[P]oliticians cannot and should not take urban parents for granted. The predominantly low-income minority parents in DC became a political force to be reckoned with when the Congress and the Obama Administration acted to wind up this program. It was the grit and determination of OSP parents and their supporters that ultimately won the day and created the political conditions whereby the program could be continued and improved.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the parental energy expended on fighting the government education monopoly was spent instead on participation in determining what’s best for teaching their children? Removing bureaucratic and legal obstacles to empower parents as consumers rather than treating them as clients would be a fine start. Every education policy stakeholder should read and take heed of the lessons provided in The School Choice Journey.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a policy advisor of The Heartland Institute.

Image by Bill Erickson.


Learn More:

“The Parent Trigger,” The Heartland Institute’s Heartland Ideas: