Is the Victory of School Choice Inevitable?

By 12/11/2015

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Victory is inevitable. That’s my biggest takeaway from Fordham’s new report on America’s best and worst cities for school choice.

This conclusion may strike some readers as premature, but while profiling the thirty cities included in the study, I was struck by how consistent the dominant narrative was across sites: School choice has grown rapidly in the past decade, and in most cities, that growth seems poised to continue indefinitely.

I don’t mean to advocate complacency or downplay the differences between cities (a central theme of the report). But from a national perspective, it’s increasingly clear that—despite the occasional legislative or judicial setback—school choice is winning and will continue to win. It’s easier to kill a bill than an idea, especially one that has grown into a movement because it works for kids.

Take caps on charter schools, for example: Of the thirty cities in our study, nineteen are located in states with some sort of cap; in some (such as Boston), this constitutes a needless and galling constraint on the growth of the sector. But ask yourself: How many charter caps have been lowered in the last ten years? (Answer: almost none) And how many have been raised? (At least fifteen.) Which policy change do you think is more likely to occur in Boston in the coming years?

Or consider private school choice mechanisms like voucher and tax credit scholarship programs: Despite the positive impacts of these programs, only eleven of our thirty cities are located in states where they are legal. And in every city besides Milwaukee, the number of students served is small, thanks to strict enrollment caps and eligibility requirements. But how many of these programs have been abolished, once created? And what changes would you predict based on the length of their waiting lists?

Finally, look at the politics of public choice mechanisms, such as the massive open enrollment programs that have been established in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Like charters and vouchers, these programs have their critics. But could they ever be reversed? Impossible. Once granted, the right to choose a school for your child is not easily revoked.

Given this one-sided history, it’s easy to understand why opponents of school choice are eager to deny it purchase in Washington State and prevent the virtuous cycle from taking hold there. That discouraging example notwithstanding, however, the arc of history suggests that the most important question facing supporters of school choice going forward is not how victory can be achieved, but what it should look like.

For me, this means confronting the weaknesses of the choice movement head-on rather than denying their existence. For example, the best evidence suggests that charter schools are now outperforming their district counterparts in most cities. But in Austin and Columbus, they perform no better than district schools, and in Jacksonville, they perform worse.

It also means confronting and discussing the potential downsides of choice as the movement continues to expand. For example, there’s good evidence that choice-based systems can lead to greater racial and socioeconomic isolation (likely as an unintended consequence of mild individual preferences), though the degree to which this occurs depends greatly on local context. Both the research on this issue and the issue itself are too complex to cover in a thousand words. But the impacts are likely far-reaching, and they ought to be discussed.

Finally, if victory is inevitable, it’s more important than ever for advocates of choice to admit when we are wrong—before our mistakes replace old interest groups with new ones and acquire a life of their own. In our report, for example, we give twenty-nine of our thirty cities credit for having online options for students, reflecting the rapid expansion of that sector in recent years. But the latest research on online education is deeply troubling. Maybe we’re moving too fast on this front.

If victory is inevitable (or just extremely likely), it follows that resistance is futile. But unlike the insidious Borg, the choice movement seeks to dissimilate, rather than assimilate, so there’s still hope for humanity. And though opponents of school choice have a long list of complaints (some more valid than others), they are hardly powerless to address them, provided they recognize that working with (rather than against) the choice movement is in their enlightened self-interest.

For example, many detractors believe that poor and at-risk students will inevitably lose out in a choice-based system (and are somehow blind to the many ways in which they are shortchanged by the existing one). This is a valid concern, since the parents of these students obviously have fewer resources with which to identify, apply to, and access the best schools. But I wonder if these critics have considered how much worse this problem will be if (as is the case in at least thirteen of the featured cities in our study) we don’t provide these students with choice-friendly transportation. Just as damaging would be (as is the case in at least twenty-four of our thirty cities) the failure to establish common applications that allow families to rank their options—from comprehensive district schools to magnet schools to charters—without the burden of filling out dozens of forms.

Similarly, some opponents of choice believe that traditional public schools are underfunded and that charters and vouchers are exacerbating the problem. I disagree on both counts—but for the sake of argument, suppose these folks have a point. What endgame do they have in mind? Are they aware that charters in Detroit, Indianapolis, and elsewhere already receive at least 40 percent less funding than traditional district schools? When charters are the system, will they celebrate the larger class sizes and lower pay for teachers this lack of funding necessitates? Will they revel in the knowledge that underserved kids are attending school in cramped and dilapidated buildings while district facilities stand empty? Somehow I doubt it.

As these examples suggest, most of the issues that are dear to choice opponents remain relevant under a choice-based system. But addressing them requires moving beyond trench warfare toward a larger vision of what our education system can become. Perhaps you think school choice will negatively impact race relations. Have you considered founding an intentionally diverse charter school? Or perhaps you think the choice movement spells doom for teachers’ working conditions. Have you considered founding a unionized charter?

Though they are rapidly losing ground, school choice skeptics still have many weapons at their disposal. I have no doubt that, if they put their minds to it, they can scorch the earth where the seeds of change are beginning to take root and grow. But they will then reap a bitter harvest. For the sake of our kids, it’s time that both opponents and supporters of school choice recognized the truth: The future is a choice we make together.

— David Griffith

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper.

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