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January 29, 2012

Expand School Choice

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Twenty years ago, there weren’t many charter schools around. Today, however, they’re a common sight. Indeed, the 10 states that have failed to permit the operation of charters are the laggards of a growing school-choice movement.

Charters remain instrumental in the growth of school choice generally. Many states are now moving to provide families with a vast array of educational options. More and more families have access to tuition tax credits, vouchers, education savings accounts and online learning. Some states, such as Florida, provide a menu of educational options so that families can customize their child’s educational experience.

Small wonder that the Wall Street Journal crowned 2011 the “Year of School Choice.” Over the course of last year, 12 states and the District of Columbia expanded or enacted new school choice programs. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was restored and expanded (despite opposition from the Obama administration), Arizona created groundbreaking education savings accounts, and Indiana enacted a voucher program that will ultimately help 600,000 children attend a private school of their choice.
Despite the successes, however, there is still a long way to go to ensure every child has access to a school that best meets his or her needs. Millions of children, particularly those from low-income and minority families, are languishing in underperforming public schools that are failing to educate them.

Organizations across the country hosted hundreds of events last week highlighting the need to expand school choice to children from coast to coast. The timing is impeccable. Right now, state legislatures nationwide are re-convening after the winter recess, and many are considering measures to create new school choice programs or expand existing options. Look for Virginia, Oklahoma, New Jersey and Louisiana to consider proposals to create options such as tuition tax credits, vouchers and online learning choices for families.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal came out strongly in support of expanding school choice in his most recent State of the State address, noting: “The way forward is very simple – it is to provide more choices and more opportunities for parents, for families, for children.… Kids only grow up once; waiting for the system to reform itself is not an option; it is time to act.”

He’s right. To paraphrase economist Milton Friedman, just because Americans have agreed to the public financing of education doesn’t mean Americans believe government should dictate where children attend school. School choice is ultimately a movement about freeing up resources to empower parents. More money is not the answer to improving education (federal money has more than doubled since the 1970s, in fact). Improvements will come from allowing families to control how their education dollars are spent.
Instead of funding things (physical school buildings), school choice options fund children. They allow education dollars to follow them to any school of their choice: public, private, home schooling, online, charter or any other educational option.

School choice works. Empirically, the evidence shows that school choice creates more satisfied parents, raises academic achievement and significantly increases graduation rates. In many cases, it saves money, providing a better value than the monopolistic public school system.

Governors and state legislators should work to implement policies that would allow educational choice to flourish. At a minimum, they should lift caps on charter schools, if they have such restrictions in place.
Next, states should craft measures that allow education dollars to be portable, following children to a school of their choice. States also can be on the forefront of the school choice movement by creating education savings accounts, allowing parents to spend education dollars on a variety of education providers if they choose an option outside of the public school system.

Generations of children are being ill-served by a one-size-fits-all education system. School choice has the potential to change that.

Lindsey M. Burke is senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service

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