For most Americans, school choice is an undisputed right.
This is the distinction to keep in mind as the incoming Trump administration prepares to make "school choice" its rallying cry. Education secretary-designate Betsy DeVos is a passionate advocate of vouchers and charter schools. Teachers unions are passionate opponents of both, and they will accuse DeVos of wanting to destroy public education.
In fact, the federal government can neither save nor destroy public education, because most school funding comes from states and localities. But it can play an important role — and what it should do is encourage choice for the children who today have none, while not diverting resources to people who do not need the help.
How? Well, here’s a suggestion: DeVos could offer one or two cities the chance to become laboratories of choice.
Any city where schools are struggling would be eligible to volunteer. (That is a big pool.) The federal government would offer financial help, on the condition that the city and state not reduce their contributions.
The system would then stop funding schools and begin funding families. Every child would be given an annual scholarship. Poor children, who often enter school needing extra attention, would get bigger scholarships. Children with disabilities would get more, too.
Every school would then have to compete for students. Principals would be allowed to hire the teachers they wanted. In exchange, every school would have to measure its children’s progress with identical tests, so that parents could compare. The tests would show not only which school’s fourth-graders were reading at the highest level but also, and more importantly, which school’s fourth-graders had made the biggest gains since third grade.
Even system headquarters would have to compete. If procurement departments could provide textbooks or paper towels at a good price, they would stay in business. If principals could find better deals elsewhere, they’d be free to do so.
The first positive change would be almost immediate: Poor parents, so often ignored and disrespected by public school bureaucrats, suddenly would find themselves being wooed and treated as valued customers.
Other aspects of the transition, including attracting quality charter schools, would take longer. Those schools would have to be persuaded that the local and federal governments were committed to running the experiment for the long term. But the positive results might soon become self-reinforcing: High-performing schools would attract more students, low performers would have to improve or close.
We've seen a version of that virtuous cycle in Washington, albeit with a less radical model. When Michelle Rhee became chancellor in 2007, she said her goal was to improve the traditional public schools — but in the meantime she would not stand in the way of good public charters.
Rhee recognized what reform opponents often overlook. It’s fine to say that we have to cure poverty before we can fix urban schools, and governments should help more with health and housing. But first-graders get only one chance at first grade — and if their schools fail them, they may never catch up. For every child trapped in a bad school, the situation is an emergency.
Washington was fortunate to have a high-quality charter school board that insists on quality and shuts poor performers. Like New Orleans, it has gradually improved procedures so that charters, which are open to all comers, can't find sneaky ways to leave the hard cases to the traditional schools.
So parents have more choices — and while Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have done the slow, tough work of improving the traditional public schools, the charters have gotten better, too. Both sectors now have more students than when the reforms began.
There is more than one way to promote choice, in other words, and the Trump administration could encourage a variety of local approaches. What it should not do is fly the banner of reform to help families who already enjoy school choice.
Particularly in the South, where whites migrated to private schools to escape integration a half-century ago, school vouchers without income limits could quickly become a back-door subsidy of "segregation academies" and their offspring. It's hard to imagine anything that would more quickly, decisively — and deservedly — set back the cause of school choice.
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