School Choice: Whose ‘Choice’ Is It Anyway?

AP/Coeur d'Alene Press, Shawn Gust
AP/Coeur d'Alene Press, Shawn Gust

Economist and author Thomas Sowell has a way of very succinctly articulating profound truths. The Cato Institute tweeted one such nugget as the country celebrates National School Choice Week:

Cato, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and the Heartland Institute—among other organizations—agree that, when it comes to “school choice,” the generic concept is fine, but it is parental choice—the right and responsibility of parents to choose the best form of education for their children—that is the hallmark of a free society.

The rhetoric associated with National School Choice Week aside, Joy Pullmann at Heartland writes, “Yes, we have school choice in this country – we have centralized school choice. Bureaucratized school choice. Central planning. The few, the proud, the paper-pushers making whatever decisions please them.”

In fact, some of the organizations that are sponsors of National School Choice Week are also supporters of the Common Core standards, a controversial top-down education reform initiative that promotes a one-size-fits-all approach to education in the name of social justice and equity.

“Partners” of the annual event this year include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Black Alliance for Education Options, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

With the centrally planned Common Core standards and the fast development of a government and corporate, elitist-led education system—that also says it supports school choice—should American parents be suspicious that perhaps Common Core proponents don’t want them to have the “choice” in their children’s education?

Cato observes why the “choice” needs to belong to parents:

Educational choice programs empower parents to choose the education that best meets their child’s needs. While all humans are imperfect, parents have historically made considerably better educational choices for their own children than state-appointed bureaucrats have made for the children of others.

The reality, however, is that if parents “choose” to send their children to a private school, that school may have additional regulatory burdens placed upon it by the state in which it is located in order to qualify as a participant in a school choice program.

In a 2010 study at Cato, Andrew Coulson looked at the question of whether school vouchers and tax credits increase regulation of private schools, and ultimately found that “vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a substantial and statistically significant additional regulatory burden on participating private schools.”

Voucher programs, Coulson concluded, are more likely to “suffocate the very markets to which they aim to expand access,” because state funds—which invariably invite state regulation—are directly transferred, in the form of vouchers, to parents to spend in an alternate education setting.

Tax credit scholarships, however, involve no state funds directly expended on private schools. Instead, taxpayers, both individual and businesses, can receive full or partial tax credits when they donate money to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.

“For the most part, voucher programs are truly about getting more educational power to parents, but accepting rules and regulations is often the price of getting and keeping such programs,” Dr. Neal McCluskey, Associate Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at Cato, told Breitbart News. “Opponents of choice want the programs hamstrung, and many people feel like, if their tax money is going to go to a private school, they should get some sort of assurance it is ‘working.’”

“This is why the superior method of delivering choice is through scholarship tax credits, programs in which individuals or corporations get credits for money they choose to donate to scholarship granting organizations,” he added. “That eliminates the concern that a taxpayer’s money is going, against their will, to a school of which they disapprove.”

Last May, in a study at the Friedman Foundation titled “Public Rules on Private Schools,” Andrew Catt provided a means for measuring the regulatory burdens placed upon private schools that seek to participate in three types of school choice programs: vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and education savings accounts.

In a phone interview with Breitbart News, Catt said, “Private schools are regulated even without school choice, and the amount of regulation changes from state to state and area to area.”

What Catt found in his study is that “voucher programs have more regulations tied to Paperwork, Reporting [one category of regulations] than tax-credit scholarship programs do,” and that, “[o]n average, the choice regulations for the voucher programs had impact scores more than three times as negative the scores of tax-credit scholarships.”

The issue of regulation of private schools that seek participation in school voucher programs has been addressed by some conservative groups.

For example, as Breitbart News reported earlier in January, a conservative coalition of 40 groups in Indiana signed onto an agenda titled the “Platform for Educational Empowerment,” which urged state lawmakers to address, among other things, the issues of “reducing regulations on voucher-accepting schools” and “freedom in testing and choice of non-Common Core-aligned/rebranded standards.”

“As conservatives and activists who have been at the forefront of the education debates in Indiana for the past two years, the groups represented here reject recent media reports that the expansion of school vouchers is a major priority for grassroots conservatives,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core. “School choice needs freedom to thrive; therefore our first priority is to free voucher schools from the stifling regulations which bind them.”

According to the Platform, while Indiana has the largest school voucher program in the country, the Center for Education Reform finds the Hoosier State is “ranked as the second-worst state in the country at ‘infringing on private school autonomy’ due to our voucher program’s many suffocating and unnecessary regulations.”

The Platform continues:

Because of these regulations, Indiana’s voucher program has one of the lowest private-school participation rates in the nation, at one-third of Indiana private schools. State lawmakers should cut all but the most basic of transparency requirements on private voucher schools, given that parents and private accreditation agencies already place higher demands on private schools than any bureaucrat can generate. Particularly egregious is the requirement that voucher-accepting schools administer the new assessment aligned to Indiana’s rebranded/Common Core-aligned standards… If true school choice is to be realized, this issue must be addressed so that parents may have genuine and competing curriculum options.

Jeff Spalding, director of fiscal policy and analysis for the Friedman Foundation, articulated the problem of increased regulations for private schools that wish to participate in school choice programs.

“With the surge in school choice legislation over the past five years, more attention has turned toward the effects of new regulations on the operations of private schools,” Spalding wrote. “A pressing concern is how new regulatory environments might impact the supply of participating private schools. This is a matter of significant importance to school choice advocates because, at a very basic level, there is no choice if there is no supply of real alternatives to traditional public schools.”


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