School Choice Grows Despite Congressional Setback

by Matt Moore

Congress is moving forward with President Bush's education reform package. But with each new step the plan gets pieces shaved off and other pieces tacked on. The once comprehensive proposal now looks more like a patchwork quilt.

One aspect of the plan that has been whittled away during negotiations is the president's ambitious proposal to give low-income students in failing schools a federal voucher to attend another public or private school of their choice. The bill now says students may only choose another public school, and future discussion may cut the provision out completely.

Choice advocates should take heart. Even if the measure is completely eliminated, the number of low-income children who receive vouchers to flee failing schools will continue to grow, with or without federal action.

The reason is simple. Despite the heated debate over school reform in Washington, D.C., education is not a federal issue; it's a state and local issue. Federal spending only accounts for 7 percent of the nation's K-12 expenditures. The states and localities are responsible for the vast majority of education spending, and are responsible for enacting most education reforms.

School choice has been promoted at the state and local level for decades. As a result, during the 1999-2000 school year, more than 60,000 children participated in school voucher programs.

Milwaukee, Cleveland and the state of Florida, for example, provide publicly funded school vouchers for students to attend public and private schools. Milwaukee and Cleveland target vouchers to low-income students - both programs have been wildly successful. Florida's A+ Plan, which is similar to the president's proposal, offers vouchers only to students in schools that consistently fail.

In addition, choice is also growing through public school choice; more than 500,000 students participated in public school choice programs across the country. Many states across the country aggressively promote public school choice by supporting charter schools, magnet schools and open enrollment policies.

Five states accounted for 57 percent of the 2,069 charter schools operating in the U.S. last fall: Arizona (408), California (261), Michigan (181), Texas (178) and Florida (151). Also, there are about 4,000 magnet schools in states across the country today, with California (472), Illinois (315) and North Carolina (119) leading the way. And 33 states have open-enrollment laws of varying degrees that allow students to attend public schools outside their district.

Notably, the states have found that when they give choice a try, it works! Study after study has demonstrated that school choice benefits the students who have the opportunity to leave their assigned public school for another public or private school. In addition, the research indicates that competition introduced by school choice programs also force the public schools that were failing to improve.

School choice is very much alive - and working well. Sooner or later, the federal government will catch up with the innovative ideas that have been percolating among state and local leaders for decades.

President Bush's proposal to tie Title I money (about $1,500 per student) to the student instead of the school is a step in the right direction. Indeed, students in failing schools who use their Title I funds to hire a tutor or purchase other educational aids will undoubtedly do better in school.

But the federal government can't act alone. A $1,500 voucher likely won't place much stress on the establishment to change because it isn't enough to pay most private school tuition. However, say each state adopts a program similar to Florida's A+ Accountability Act, which provides vouchers to students trapped in schools that consistently fail. Since students across the country would have enough money to leave failing campuses, public schools would face the same incentives to get better - and would experience the same progress - as those in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida.

School choice is a worthwhile goal, especially if the program is set up like Florida's and targets aid to the neediest children. After all, there must be some ultimate escape for children trapped in a school that cannot or will not reform, even when given the flexibility, time and resources to do so.

So regardless of what Congress does to the federal education bill's choice component, choice initiatives will continue to grow at the state and local level.