Let a Thousand Choices Bloom

Debating the future of education reform.

Fifty years after Milton Friedman first proposed the idea of education vouchers, school choice proposals come in all shapes and sizes. We asked a dozen experts what reforms they think are most necessary and promising to improve American education. We also asked them to identify the biggest obstacles to positive change. Here are their answers. Comments should be sent to letters@reason.com.

Lisa Snell

Snell is director of the Education and Child Welfare Program at the Reason Foundation.

Most necessary reform: Any reform that directly attaches money to the backs of children and allows them to choose any school, without regard to residential restrictions, holds promise. The actual choice mechanism--tax credit, charter school, or voucher--is less important than a child's having substantial purchasing power and an open system that allows many different types of schools to compete for the child's funding.

While many free-market scholars view public charter schools as a more marginal school-choice reform, these schools do demonstrate what can happen when students have both a true open enrollment system and purchasing power rivaling that of students enrolled in traditional public schools.

With close to 1 million students enrolled nationwide and more than 3,400 contracts between charter schools and their government authorizers, charter schools may be the most common example of school choice. The number of both for-profit and nonprofit charter schools continues to increase. In 2005 there were at least 500 public schools being operated by 51 for-profit management companies in 28 states. There has also been substantially more specialization and branding of nonprofit charter schools. There are well-known national nonprofit brands, such as KIPP Academies, and there are scores of for-profit and nonprofit charters that operate a handful of schools each focusing on the Montessori method, or math and science, or the performing arts.

I'm not saying that charter schools, with their often burdensome regulations, are the best mechanism for school choice. But in order to have substantial growth, school choice programs need students with substantial purchasing power, and they need to be open to a larger student population. Most existing school-choice programs qualify students based on income and disability restrictions.

Biggest obstacle: One significant barrier to more school choice is the implicit acceptance of our archaic system of residential school assignment. Parents are used to selecting a school based on their real estate choices. In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have designed enrollment systems to allow any child to choose any public school, the most resistance has come from parents who do not want other children pushing their own child out of the preferred neighborhood school. Everything from the real estate industry to school rankings based on test scores is set up to reinforce the idea of school assignment by address. Imagine if our higher education system worked that way.

Changing the cultural and institutional structures that reinforce school assignment is one crucial element for expanding the number of choices available to students and their families.

Andrew Coulson

Coulson is a senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and a member of the Advisory Council of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at the University of Newcastle. He is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Most necessary reform: Choice is a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of an education marketplace. The international and historical evidence suggests that effective education markets rely on the interaction of parental choice, direct parental payment, minimal regulation, vigorous competition, and the profit motive.

To best serve the public's needs and ideals, we must not only create an education market, we must ensure universal access to it. Some third-party financial assistance is therefore necessary, but it must be minimized because it impedes the market's effectiveness by relieving parents of direct financial responsibility. It is also important to avoid compelling taxpayers to fund instruction that violates their convictions, in order to avoid social tensions over the content of schooling.

One policy most effectively advances these sometimes competing goals: a combined personal/donation tax credit. First, parents with school-aged children not enrolled in government schools should be eligible for credits of up to several thousand dollars, whether they are home-schooling, sending their children to private schools, or a combination of the two. This will allow them to spend more of their own money on their children's education. Second, individuals and businesses that pay for the education of someone else's school-aged child (whether directly or by donating to a scholarship fund) should be eligible for a credit.

In the case of scholarship donations, the credit should have either no cap or a very generous cap. In the case of direct payments, it should have the same cap as the personal-use credit claimable by parents. These credits should be non-refundable, which is to say they should never result in a net payment from state coffers to a taxpayer. They should be applicable to state and local income and property taxes. (The Constitution gives the federal government no role in education.)

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