What We Didn’t Know About School Choice in 2001

By 05/27/2015

Print | NO PDF |

Darned USPS.

It appears that back in 2001 or so, now-Governor of Delaware Jack Markell wrote an opinion piece about private school choice. Because of some snafu at the post office, his letter just recently made it to Education Week.

Though some education issues are evergreen (say, the importance of highly effective teachers and strong content standards), much has changed over the last decade-plus in the world of private school choice. Unfortunately, for Markell (well, and for all of us), his out-of-date column was published.

If the governor could call a do-over, I’m sure he’d make adjustments in at least four areas.

First, he argued for limiting choice to the public system—“among traditional, charter, and magnet schools.” Obviously, 2001 Markell couldn’t have known that the public schools sector would be unable to create the number of seats needed. Indeed, as of last year, more than a million students were on charter waitlists nationwide.

Moreover, there’s no way he could have foreseen that future governors who claimed to support public school choice would actually take action to inhibit charter growth. For example, the Markell of 2001 never would have predicted that the Markell of 2015 would sign a law establishing a moratorium on charters in Delaware’s largest city.

Second, he claimed that there’s no accountability in choice programs. But as a recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures explains, that has changed in major ways since Markell put pen to paper in the heady days of budget surpluses and the AOL-Time Warner merger. As NCSL notes, nearly all states with choice require some combination of assessments, accreditation, seat-time requirements, and indicators of financial strength.

2001 Markell claimed that private school students aren’t required to take state tests. But as we now know, the voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin mandate precisely that. In fact, if a private school underperforms in Louisiana, it’s barred from accepting additional program students. Participating schools in Indiana get letter grades from the state’s accountability system and are prohibited from taking in new program students if they receive a D or F. If a participating Wisconsin school loses accreditation, it’s removed from the program. Moreover, eight other states require participating private schools to administer a nationally norm-referenced test.

Importantly, private school accountability continues to advance. Some advocate authorizers for schools participating in voucher programs, an approach that would respect private school independence while maintaining public accountability. And all of this is on top of the ultimate accountability lever: parental choice. No student is assigned to a private school. Private school enrollment reflects the affirmative decisions of the most discriminating consumers, families.

Third, while making a legal case against the inclusion of faith-based schools, Markell wrote that “the government should not be in the business of funding programs or institutions that promote one religion over all others.” I suppose Markell can be forgiven for not knowing back in 2001 that the U.S. Supreme Court, the very next year, would declare voucher programs constitutional. The court explained that families independently exercising choice is different from the government preferencing a religion. It found the program in question “entirely neutral” on the issue of religion: “It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals….It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious.”

This decision is just one of many (at the state and federal levels) that have upheld choice programs. Indeed, courts, legislatures, and voters have so internalized the constitutionality of private school choice that there are now fifty-six programs in twenty-nine states today.

We might wonder, however, whether Ally McBeal-era Markell was so concerned about government aid reaching private schools that he would’ve opposed Delaware’s students using Pell Grants to attend the religiously affiliated Notre Dame or Emory—or, say, his private school alma maters, Brown and the University of Chicago.

Lastly, Markell wrote of the “unsettled and uneven” performance history of choice programs. Again, unfortunate timing for the governor, as much has happened in the last fourteen years. As one recent brief put it, “Twelve studies using a method called random assignment, the gold standard in the social sciences, have found statistically significant gains in academic achievement from school vouchers. No such study has ever found negative effects.”

I hope Education Week gives Governor Markell a chance to revisit this subject and write a column that reflects all we’ve learned since the early days of the Bush presidency. Perhaps he could engage with those, like Mike McShane, exploring how to best expand the number and quality of private school options. Maybe he wants to consider how faith-based urban schools contribute to social capital or how choice empowers low-income families. Maybe he wants to discuss the burgeoning effort to increase the number of low-income kids in great schools via the “three-sector” approach.

Fortunately, with e-mail now so ubiquitous and reliable, he won’t have to worry about his new piece getting lost in the mail.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Flypaper

Sponsored Results

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform