The Inexorable Increase in School Choice

Commentary by Pete du Pont

As the nation's schoolchildren prepare for another year in the classroom, the forces of change are sweeping the educational landscape for many of them. More and more families have the opportunity to hold their public schools accountable - and to take positive action if the schools don't measure up.

The key is school choice. If a school isn't meeting a child's needs, the parents need to be able to find another school that promises to do so. Even though school choice thus far touches only a small percentage of the nation's schools, the ranks are growing. And the children primarily affected are among those who need help the most; they're mostly from low-income families, often minorities, and live where the public schools don't do a good job of teaching, are unsafe, or both.

This school year, for example, students at two low-performing public schools in Pensacola, Fla., will be the first to attend private schools under Florida's new tax-funded voucher program. And that program is scheduled to expand to cover the entire state. Two other tax-funded voucher programs, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, will operate again this year.

Also this school year, more than 80,000 children from low-income families will be attending private schools using privately funded scholarships that pay a part of their tuition. This is double the number that used privately funded vouchers last year, thanks to a massive new nationwide private program.

Meanwhile, like an army that sees its position eroded by the hour, the teachers' unions and their allies are fighting a rear-guard action against letting any child escape any public school, regardless of how bad it may be. For that matter, they aren't happy about a lot of the efforts to expand choice within the public schools, either. At the moment, lawsuits are being filed left and right. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have filed state lawsuits challenging Florida's new law.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already rebuffed voucher opponents who tried to get it to prohibit Milwaukee's tax-funded voucher program. Now they're pinning their hopes on a federal challenge to the Cleveland program as a violation of the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion. The state supreme courts in both Wisconsin and Ohio have ruled that the voucher programs do not aid religion because the tax money goes to religious schools only as a result of choices by parents.

Even within the public schools, there is change that bodes well for the future of school choice. For one thing, the number of charter schools continues to grow, with many of them specifically designed to meet the educational needs of at-risk students or other students who need special help. Charter schools are publicly funded, but are not held to many of the bureaucratic strictures of traditional public schools. Generally they get funds to educate the students but not funds for capital needs such as buildings. They have had difficulty attracting private financing because the concept is so new and because of a lack of a financial track record.

But last month a charter school in suburban Denver was rated by Standard & Poor's, the financial services and credit rating company. Furthermore, the Wall Street investment firm Merrill Lynch reported over the summer that for-profit education companies operating K-12 schools - many of them charter schools - had $18.5 billion in revenue last year, and predicted the figure will grow by 10 percent to 15 percent in the next couple of years.

The biggest for-profit operator is the Edison Project, which operated 51 public schools in 12 states last school year and is contracting to manage 77 in the coming year. Edison, not yet profitable, spent $40 million designing the program it uses in schools, and began contracting to run public schools three years ago. Edison has already raised $232 million in private investment, including $71 million last week. In addition, it asked approval last week to make a public stock offering.

I count that an encouraging sign because the for-profit companies will have to innovate if they want the business. According to a report in Education Week, Michael R. Sandler, chief executive officer of EduVentures, a Boston consulting firm, predicts that "the true agents of change for education reform in the 21st century are going to be the innovative for-profit enterprises built by education entrepreneurs."



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.