Don't Settle for Limited School Choice Programs

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Now that the Supreme Court has said that religious schools can cash tuition vouchers, people who want better schools should demand more than limited versions of school choice.

Genuine competition is our best hope for a better K-12 education system. The potential rivalry that results from limited programs is not enough to foster a competitive education marketplace. In a truly competitive setting, public and private schools would compete equally for customers. The government wouldn't favor public schools over privately run schools.

Existing school choice programs provide public school users much more funding than private school users. And only a small fraction of families are eligible. The Milwaukee program, for instance, allows vouchers no larger than $5783. But the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) spend $10,228 per pupil. Families cannot supplement voucher funds with their own money-a form of price control. Only low-income families can participate, and no more than 15 percent of MPS enrollment.

Cleveland offers fewer, smaller vouchers. Florida only funds students from schools the state admits have failed in at least two of the previous four years, the voucher amount is about half the funds provided for a public school student, and families cannot use the vouchers at schools that charge more than the voucher amount. In other words, families are not eligible until their children are certified victims of education malpractice, and private schools cannot cash vouchers unless they promise to help them catch up and then outperform their public school peers for half of what the state's failed school spent.

In a truly competitive education market, the government would not discriminate against parents who choose privately run schools for their children. All parents would have choice and they would be able to choose equally among public and private schools. Our limited school choice programs help the few children who are lucky enough to participate. But such programs cannot provide the resources and incentives that would greatly improve both public and private schools.

Without the full-fledged competition that a universal, non-discriminatory program can foster, choice programs can produce only modest benefits. The current programs mostly fill empty seats in existing private schools. Milwaukee, with the nation's oldest, largest, and most generous voucher program, has not expanded private school capacity enough to eliminate waiting lists. In a mature competitive system, school entrepreneurs would form new schools to take advantage of the huge opportunities to profit by improving upon existing offerings.
Many believe that limited school choice programs will gradually evolve into larger non-discriminatory, universal programs. This may be wishful thinking. Government programs are more likely to gain restrictions than shed them. The original key restrictions like price controls, participation limits, and discrimination against private school users persist. A phase-in period is okay, but experience tells us that it is important to get the critical elements in place in the original legislation. A gradual transition to a mature competitive market is assured by the fact that 90 percent of school-age children currently attend public schools. Even with a universal, non-discriminatory choice program fully in place, it would take years of rapid growth before the private sector could accommodate much larger numbers of students. The public schools would have plenty of time to make themselves choice-worthy alongside a growing assortment of private options.

Many people see school choice programs as nothing more than escape valves for low-income children trapped in the worst inner city schools. Escape valve programs reinforce the fallacy that other public schools are just fine. Now that the constitutionality question has been settled, we should seek school choice for all children, not just limited programs for the most desperate students. All schools, public and private, could be much better, and only universal school choice and full-fledged competition can deliver that result.

The dream of creating a higher standard of quality for both private schools and public schools can become a reality, but only if we don't set our sights short of that goal. The goal is a full-fledged competitive universal educational choice system that will significantly improve government-owned and private schools.

John Merrifield is an economist in the College of Business at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the author of the new book "School Choices: True and False."  David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.