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Has School Choice Been All It Set Out to Be?

As the movement slows, policymakers have the opportunity to explore whether school choice has improved education overall.

Kasey Locke has been diagnosed with autism. When her parents enrolled her in the public school in her town in Arizona, she had a hard time communicating, let alone learning. The Lockes, however, took advantage of an education savings account (ESA) program to sign their daughter up at a private school. ESAs work like vouchers, with one difference: The funds can be used not just for tuition but for other expenses, such as tutoring. For Kasey, the new school and continuing educational therapy did the trick. “With the ESA, the parents were able to put her in a private school that specializes in autism,” says Debbie Lesko, the majority whip in the Arizona Senate. “The child is not only learning, but thriving.”

Lesko thinks a program that has worked so well for a family like the Lockes should be available to any Arizona resident who wants to use it. Five years ago, she sponsored legislation that made Arizona the first state to offer ESAs, which it calls empowerment scholarship accounts. Since then, Arizona has repeatedly expanded the pool of eligible residents to include groups such as foster children, Native Americans and the children of military veterans. 

No state has embraced school choice ideas with the fervor of Arizona. It has the nation’s highest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools -- 14 percent, which is roughly three times the national average. The state Department of Education itself runs an office of school choice. 

At the start of this year, the time seemed right in Arizona to expand the ESA program to take all comers. Neighboring Nevada enacted the nation’s first statewide ESA program last year, freeing up state money for students to use regardless of geographic location, or educational or family status. Thousands of families immediately signed up and the idea of copying Nevada became the ambition of state legislators across the country.

Lesko got her version through the Arizona Senate in February. But that was as far as it has gotten. The bill was twice pulled from the House floor due to a lack of support. Even some Republicans, who hold the majority in both chambers, were nervous that universal ESAs would drain too much money from traditional public schools. Meanwhile, Nevada’s universal ESA program has been put on hold due to a court challenge.

School choice is having its glass-half-full moment. On the one hand, the various choice options -- vouchers, charter schools, home schooling, tuition scholarship programs, open enrollment within districts -- have grown enormously over the past decade. Once choice is available, there’s no denying its popularity. Waiting lists for charter schools are common. Parents who want their kids to study Mandarin or engineering can find charter schools that cater to such ambitions. 

On the other hand, proponents of choice say that the better they do in terms of improved test scores, high enrollment and reducing long waiting lists, the more pushback they encounter. People who run and support charter schools contend that traditional school districts and teachers unions use every tactic at their disposal, from political and legal battles to simply hogging school buildings and buses, as part of the ongoing effort to beat them down. “A lot of our friends feel like charters are getting their butts kicked,” says Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform.

As a generation’s worth of momentum toward school choice begins to slow a little, policymakers have the opportunity to explore whether school choice is doing what it was supposed to do in the first place: offer not just an alternative to public schools, but new methods that improve education and can be widely replicated elsewhere.

While charter school operators feel embattled, the reality is that charters and other choice options have become a structural part of the education landscape. That wasn’t a sure thing even a few years ago. Obituaries were being written about school choice at the beginning of the Obama administration, given Democratic opposition to vouchers and the lack of love for charter schools among teachers unions. As the current administration starts to wind down, though, school choice is more popular than ever, embraced not only by conservative Republicans eager to inject competition into any state-run system, but by many Democrats as well. Even traditional school administrators now must accept the language of choice. “I don’t think anybody is arguing that we should just have traditional public schools and we shouldn’t have these options,” says Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The first charter school law passed 25 years ago. There was scarcely any enrollment even at the dawn of the century. Today, charters -- which receive public funding but are mostly run independently of school districts -- educate more than 2 million students. “It’s no longer niche programs just in cities,” says Patrick Wolf, an education policy professor at the University of Arkansas. “It’s risen above a critical mass.” 


Choice may continue to rise, but that doesn’t mean its growth will continue at a rate that seriously erodes the dominance of the traditional public school model. Cities such as New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where majorities of kids are educated outside the traditional school district, will remain what they are now -- outliers. This year, Florida’s budget provides equal amounts of money for construction of both charters and traditional public schools. But that’s unusual. The vast majority of the nation’s schoolchildren still attend traditional public schools in their neighborhoods. 

School districts and unions are doing everything they can to maintain their market dominance. A superintendent who has graduated from a foundation-sponsored training program 

such as the Broad Academy is sure to be confronted with angry accusations that he or she is a corporate sellout. “The rule is, it’s still a street fight,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports school choice. “They basically hassle and harass the charter schools at every opportunity.”

Most dramatically, teachers in both Chicago and Detroit recently staged walkouts and strikes, in part to protest encroachment from charters and other choice options. Both city systems have deficits reaching well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, leading many to worry that support for the traditional system will continue to erode in favor of charters and other newer models. “You can’t overstate what bad shape we’re in because of charters and choice decimating a public school district and running it into the ground,” says Margaret Weertz of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.


Teachers in Chicago and Detroit recently staged walkouts and strikes, in part to protest charters. Chicago teachers also walked out in 2012. (AP)

It’s true that in terms of actually delivering education that’s measurably better than traditional public schools, vouchers and charters continue to have a mixed record. School reformers have consistently overpromised the effects their bright new ideas would have. In the face of ongoing political opposition, it may no longer be enough to slap the name “charter” on a school and convince parents it’s going to be a better place for their children.

 As to measuring the record of accomplishment, it’s not a simple matter. Choice supporters and opponents continually accuse the other side of cherry-picking numbers that overstate the benefits or drawbacks of their own approach. It’s easy to find a study showing that vouchers, for instance, have no effect on test scores, or that kids in voucher programs end up doing worse in reading or math. You can also find a study that demonstrates the exact opposite. 

In February, Don Coberly, the superintendent of schools in Boise, Idaho, put out a public memo accusing a foundation of presenting college admission tests in misleading ways to make his schools look bad. “At a recent downtown Rotary Club meeting, the executive director of the Albertson Foundation stated that the goal of the foundation is to increase charter school seats by 20,000 in the next few years,” Coberly wrote. “That will only happen if Idahoans lose faith in their public schools.”

In response to complaints that people have already lost faith, public school supporters respond that charters and other choice options are being pushed by big-money foundations, as well as corporations out to make money by siphoning off per-pupil spending. Programs such as ESAs are seen as giveaways to parents who would be sending their kids to private schools anyway. Private schools and charters can “cream” off their choice of applicants, while old-fashioned neighborhood schools -- which have to keep their doors open to all comers -- are left to deal with a population of less-motivated parents and often struggling students. “If a charter program fails to deliver, those kids come back into the traditional public schools,” says Gentzel, the school boards association official. “Often, they need remediation and end up costing the taxpayer more.”

But in a consumer culture where the Internet makes shopping for any conceivable item easy and your corner bar may stock 20 different kinds of craft beer, parents are clamoring for choice when it comes to something as essential as their kids’ education. Every parent who has the chance exercises school choice, if only by picking neighborhoods that boast strong schools, says Doug Lemov, managing director at Uncommon Schools, which runs urban charters. “For most of the 20th century, if you were poor, you were forced by law to send your child to a dysfunctional school that was probably dangerous,” he says. “There was hidden choice for other families. Now, for the first time, there is a conversation about whether we can make choice available to others.”

Aside from that fairness argument, school choice has something else major going for it: true believers. Families such as the Lockes in Arizona become fierce partisans of their preferred flavor of choice and the institutions that support them. Active and avid supporters make a big difference. So-called reform programs such as Common Core and standardized testing have their adherents, but they won’t inspire 20,000 people to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. That happened back in 2013, when Bill de Blasio was running for mayor of New York and threatened to make charter schools pay rent. He might have sounded pretty hostile to charters back then, but his administration has ended up approving most charter school applications. Thousands again rallied in Brooklyn last October in support of charter schools.


Thousands of charter school supporters gathered in New York City in October to demand more charters. (AP)

De Blasio himself notes that more than 90 percent of kids in New York are still being taught in traditional public schools. The focus, he argues, should be on creating greater educational outcomes for them. All over the country, it’s clear that traditional public schools still do the bulk of the work of educating kids. The choice movement, for all its success, is a long way from scaling up and demonstrating that its approaches guarantee greater performance. “Successful districts feel they have no trouble retaining students in their systems,” says Sasha Pudelski, assistant policy director for the American Association of School Administrators. “They don’t see vouchers or charter schools as a threat.”

Traditional public schools should be able to retain market share, if only by borrowing ideas from the most successful charters, whether it’s individualized instruction or longer school days. Some states have made the mistake of assuming that charter schools, ESAs or tuition scholarship programs should be encouraged because they beat the stagnant alternative of the status quo. But that’s not necessarily so. It’s important to look at how particular options are working on the ground in particular places. “It’s not just about having choices, but good choices,” says Barone, the Democrats for Education Reform policy director. “The states that let a thousand flowers bloom tend not to do as well as states where there’s an emphasis on both choice and quality.”

Finding out what works and weeding out the programs that don’t is something that both choice advocates and supporters of traditional public schools should be able to get behind. Gentzel makes a fair point, noting that when tax dollars are paying for charters and other programs there needs to be accountability. “There’s not adequate oversight and expenditure of the funds and performance of the schools,” he says.

The idea of having a “harbormaster” -- one entity with oversight over all schools that receive public funding within a city -- is gaining some currency. One good thing that can come out of the endless political and legal battles over the very existence of school choice is a growing insistence on accountability. 

Maybe much of the work of education can be contracted out, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be oversight of finances, governance and results. Every school that’s publicly funded should not only strive to do well, but use comparable data for measuring success, Barone suggests.

One Florida family sought to use ESA money for an “educational vacation” in Europe. They were turned down, but making sure public education dollars are being spent as intended -- providing the best possible schooling for the nation’s kids -- could prove one of the most profitable of the many growing pains school choice is still experiencing.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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