Republican presidential aspirants are talking about school choice early and often. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker says, “I believe that we need to give families as many high quality education choices as possible to succeed.” Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal argues, “To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity.” Not to be outdone, provisional front-runner and noted education reform proponent Jeb Bush declares, “Choice rewards success and weeds out stagnation, inefficiency, and failure.”
This is a welcome development. Republicans can’t talk seriously about opportunity without addressing education, and parental choice is a powerful lever for tackling school improvement. But school choice is only a start—because choice is only part of a strategy for fighting runaway bureaucracy, creating more great schools, and building a political coalition that can sustain its success.
When it comes to improving schools, choice is necessary but insufficient. Parental choice, in the form of charter schooling, school vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts, gives families more control and can make it easier for terrific new schools to emerge and expand. However, just as none of the Republican aspirants would suggest that ObamaCare promotes vibrant competition because Americans can “choose” among insurers, so they should be clear that meaningful choice requires a lot more than sloganeering.
When focusing on choice alone, advocates can lose sight of the constraints on the decision-making ability of low-income families and how seemingly picayune details in policy can stymie new school providers, burden innovators and higher-fliers, and make it tough for traditional districts to respond effectively to competition.
None of this should be news to a conservative who’s studied the free market. Nobel laureates Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman noted decades ago that all “markets” aren’t the same—that their vibrancy depends on larger structures, rules, and routines.
So, how can advocates help school choice succeed? First, they can resist the urge to foist the same regulations that have stifled traditional public schools onto schools of choice. Unfortunately, examples of creeping regulation are plentiful. In the school choice mecca of New Orleans, for example, advocates have pushed for all schools to use a uniform expulsion policy. If a “no excuses” high school wants to hold their students to a higher bar than the code allows, too bad.
Excessive regulation can threaten the very things that make charter schools distinct. In New York, the enormously successful Success Academies report spending thousands of staff hours filling out more than 60 expansive, oft-duplicative reports. Charter school applications reach a thousand pages or more, giving birth to a cadre of consultants who help charter operators navigate the school application process. This risks creating an insuperable burden for a group of teachers or parents trying to start a school in their community.
School choice advocates can also embrace measures that will broaden the appeal and relevance of school choice. Of the one in five American households that have school-age children at home, more than two-thirds give their child’s school an A or a B. School choice focusing solely on letting frustrated parents escape lousy schools speaks to concerns of perhaps six percent of the nation’s households. The way to strengthen parental choice, for everyone and in the long term, is to ensure that it also speaks to the needs of middle-class families.
Officials can do that by expanding the array of promising, practical options that families have to provide their children with a rich, robust, and rigorous education. Parents may quite like their school, but dislike its approach to teaching math. They might want to have their child learn Mandarin or Farsi instead of Spanish for French. “Course Choice” programs allow students to take some portion of their state funding to other providers for customized coursework while staying enrolled in their traditional public school. A robust array of online programs are available that can match students to language teachers, or take courses from some of the nation’s top universities. Income, location, and age no longer have to be limiting factors.
School choice is good start. But it’s just a start. Republican aspirants who seize on choice as a pillar of their opportunity agenda should be clear on what it will take for it to deliver on its powerful promise.
Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a former high school teacher.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. A former high school social studies teacher, his books include "Making Civics Count," "Cage-Busting Leadership," and "The Cage-Busting Teacher."