School Choice Vouchers Are Everywhere … What Now?

Published February 18, 2016

The school choice movement has reached a milestone: The majority of states offer a school choice program that includes access to private schools.

This is a major accomplishment, but those of us who advocate for individual and family self-determination are nowhere near finished.

Tinkering at the Margins

The school choice programs that exist are mostly very small and often highly regulated. This means they tend to tinker at the margins of culture and education policy, instead of making the necessary significant changes the nation needs to accelerate school quality quickly.

The smallness of choice programs that include private schools has given charter schools a market edge over private school choice, even though the latter offers more scope for deeper curricular, structural, and cultural diversity. Private schools also offer better buffers against the reabsorption of families’ education opportunities into the government-industrial complex through choice programs’ permission gates, which stifle quality, innovation, and individual liberty.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a University of Washington-Bothell research professor, wrote, in a February blog post, education freedom leaders should invest energies in promoting charter schools’ success.

“Even in localities where the average voucher effects have been positive, most new schools created from scratch to take vouchers drag down the average,” Hill wrote. “And, existing private schools will fill their available seats but are unlikely to build new facilities or replicate. To date, most voucher programs have provided too little money and have been too politically unreliable to generate a strong supply response.”

Hill is right. In order for real, widespread choice to take hold, suppliers—educators—must be able to trust their students will be able to bring sufficient monetary resources with them to support the necessary investment in facilities over the long term. Underfunded programs with unreliable political support can’t bring on the education revolution the nation sorely needs.

Charter Schools and Private Schools

In a column for Education Next, a journal published by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, Juliet Squire says charter schools must be supplemented by “mediating institutions,” important intermediaries between individuals and the government.

Such institutions, she writes, include “the numerous entities that have emerged to fill gaps in the charter school sector such as facilities, talent, enrollment, community engagement, and advocacy. These are gaps that a) the government does not fill and b) no one individual can fill alone. Today, dozens if not hundreds of these civil society organizations support the function and growth of high-quality options for kids.

“School choice is not just about empowering individuals to make decisions,” Squire wrote. “Nor is school choice just about breaking down a sclerotic government monopoly. School choice is also an important social endeavor that creates a space in which groups of individuals can collectively and freely apply their talents to address different aspects of a societal issue.”

This is yet another reason to prefer private institutions over public ones, such as charter schools, and a reason to push for sufficient government funding to support a “startup phase” that should end once the new educational institutions are off and running.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute. An earlier version of this article first appeared at Reprinted with permission.