School Choice Still More Debated Than Utilized — But for How Long?
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How would consumers react to the state mandating that Americans shop at only the supermarket nearest to them?

When the corner market corners the market, it can offer inferior products, inflate prices, and treat customers as pests instead of patrons. Left without choice, shoppers become dependents, a class of people forced to settle for less rather than choose the best.

Something resembling this backwards approach characterizes the one-size-fits-all public education system from kindergarten through high school in the United States. American 15-year-olds, for instance, fall in the middle of the pack versus students from other industrialized countries in science and reading and in the back of the pack for mathematics, according to the Program for International Student Assessment. A poorly designed system produces mediocre results.

Disadvantaged kids get shortchanged, as a recent study reporting that three-fourths of African-American students in California fail to meet state reading standards indicates. Wealthy Americans, even when enjoying the option of sending children to higher-performing public schools, decide to pay out of their pocket for what the government offers for free.

Both examples offer a terrible indictment of the public schools. The underprivileged trapped in failing public schools and the privileged escaping from them speak with one voice here. They want what’s behind door number two. Unfortunately, that door remains locked for most Americans.

School choice remains an option more debated than available. Public schools enroll more than fifty million students. A few hundred thousand students enroll in private institutions through school choice programs.

Obstacles, including public-employee unions and courts reluctant to grant religious schools tax dollars, block or limit access to school choice programs. The legal roadblocks in the way of vouchers do not appear as daunting for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

ESAs provide parents an account to spend on tuition, books, music lessons, and other education-related expenses. This allows parents to tailor a curriculum to their children. To extend the supermarket analogy, shoppers once presented with Cheerios now choose from Chex, Raisin Bran, Captain Crunch, and scores of other products.

Because the funds allocated annually to each account roll over into subsequent years’ accounts, the program provides an incentive for parents to pinch pennies rather than spend the lump sum all at once. So, the inflationary effect of, say, a $7,000 voucher encouraging a private school to raise tuition from $5,000 to $7,000 does not mar ESAs, which compel competitive pricing through the rollover monies.

Parents prefer ESAs not only to the status quo approach of public schools but to vouchers, charter schools, and other programs providing a choice. Vouchers allow for parents to pick from, say, schools x, y, and z, ESAs allow especially-interested parents to create precisely the studies that they believe suit their children.

ESAs combine ideals from the two major political parties. ESA proponents accept the idea that a decent society provides its members the opportunity to receive a quality education. They reject the notion that government should necessarily deliver that education via its employees, buildings, and curriculum. ESAs thus mesh two basic principles, the first embraced by liberals and the second by conservatives, of an entitlement to a quality education and a choice in what constitutes that quality education. This helps explain poll results favoring ESAs.

Minority groups support ESAs at levels significantly higher than whites. In urban communities, 60 percent supported and just 24 percent opposed. A majority of Democrats and Republicans favor ESAs. The margin of support appears roughly the same regardless of party. Remarkably, support beats opposition to ESAs by double figures in all 27 subgroups examined in the poll.

Judges struck down traditional voucher programs on the grounds that government payments directly to religious institutions violated the First Amendment. ESAs, by granting money to parents to craft their children’s education, maneuvered around legal roadblocks. Indeed, ESAs owe their existence to frustrated education reformers devising a form of school choice that courts could not strike down.

In Arizona, site of the first statewide ESA program, courts killing school choice programs by invoking church-state concerns caused advocates to get creative.

“In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that K-12 school vouchers violate provisions of the state constitution,” Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute tells The American Spectator. “These provisions — commonly known as Blaine Amendments — prohibit the use of public funds for private or religious purposes. But education savings accounts are fundamentally different from vouchers because the state deposits funds in a private account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their children. Parents make decisions about how the funds are used and how and where their children are educated. Arizona courts later agreed.”

In an era of Uber, Amazon, and eBay, when consumers drown in choices, the cultural tide seems too strong for monopolies — be they the local taxi-cab cabal or the cookie-cutter approach to schooling — to go unchallenged. Public education remains stuck in the same spot. And Americans students remains stuck in the middle of the pack vis-à-vis their peers abroad.

Notice the connection?

Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.

 

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