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Smart Ideas for School Choice

January 30, 2013 posted by Adam Emerson, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Adam Emerson, Fordham InstituteAdam Emerson is the school choice czar for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he directs the policy program on parental choice and edits the Choice Words blog.

Part of the appeal of National School Choice Week is that it highlights not just our varied (and flourishing) school choice accomplishments, but of the need for more – of both the public and private variety. The sobering reality is that, even with burgeoning charter and voucher movements, school choice is largely exercised by families able to afford private school tuition or who move to neighborhoods because of their schools.

There's no shortage of efforts or ideas to correct this. But now, StudentsFirst, headed up by Michelle Rhee, has proposed some solutions for policy makers who ought to design programs with underserved children in mind while reasonably regulating these programs in the public interest.

In its newest policy brief, StudentsFirst details its support of enhancing quality options for disadvantaged families through charter schools and school vouchers – with an emphasis on quality. While its support for school choice has been established since its founding, StudentsFirst brings to the debate some common sense reforms that would make these efforts more politically sustainable.

Yes, as the brief documents, there remains a persistent funding gap between charter schools and traditional school districts that needs to be addressed, and lawmakers must find ways to enable charters to better access facilities; doing otherwise treats some public school students differently from others. But enhancing these options comes with responsibilities: requiring performance-based contracts for charters as well as greater accountability of charter authorizers and clear triggers for closing low-performing schools (all measures long advanced by the Fordham Institute, where I work).

Additionally, school vouchers and tax credit scholarships successfully educate the poorest and most underserved children at pennies on the public school dollar, and they should receive more funding if they're to fulfill their potential. But if we're to better fund our private school choice initiatives, lawmakers must hold voucher and tax credit scholarship programs accountable for results. Parents and taxpayers should be able to compare the performance of voucher kids with their peers in public schools, and the best way to do that is by using the available state assessments and with transparent reporting mechanisms. "If the private school can't show it is using the money in a way that supports student achievement," StudentsFirst states in its brief, "policymakers shouldn't allow the school to participate in the program."

A statement like that is apt to give many friends of school choice some pause, but it's the right policy if we want to responsibly empower parents who have no alternatives to a zip-code education. And it's not a policy likely to prompt many private schools to flee these efforts, as the Fordham Institute has documented in its newest study of private school choice and government regulations.

National School Choice Week will end in a few days, but the efforts to enact and maintain these programs will continue in earnest –- some more successfully than others. StudentsFirst has joined the stable of policy groups with smart ideas to keep them going –- and Michelle Rhee has the national reach to shape the debate. Let's hope she succeeds.

Topics: School Choice