Matthew Ladner

Is School Choice Enough?

Posted on January 24, 2008 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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While its intellectual roots go back a long way, the modern school-choice movement basically began in 1990 with the passage of the first school-voucher law in Milwaukee. The first charter-school law appeared at about that time, too. Eighteen years into the battle for school choice, Sol Sterns new article has set off a firestorm in the education-reform world. He asks: Wheres the beef? Are market-based reforms truly a panacea for our education problems?

Theoretically, market mechanisms could be completely transformative. As a practical matter, however, our ability to emulate a market system in education has been and will continue to encounter constraints. But this is only to say that we must pursue both choice and other reforms vigorously. Contrary to the implicit assumption of Sterns article, theres nothing mutually exclusive about choice and instruction-based reform.

The Manhattan Institute ranks my home state of Arizona Number One in parental choice. Thanks to a very liberal charter-school law, Arizona has 483 charter schools and counting. Take a casual drive around Phoenix, and you'll see several such schools. Thousands of children also use open enrollment within the public school system to transfer within and between public school districts. Spurred by the competition, public schools have begun to develop traditional magnet schools with back-to-basics academics. The results to date seem promising, as traditional-school test scores have been high above the national average.

Arizona also pioneered the first scholarship tax-credit program in 1997. Scholarship tax credits allow a taxpayer to make a donation to a non-profit group, and to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit in return. The non-profit groups accumulate funds and grant scholarships to children to help defray private-school costs. Arizona's program has since been imitated in Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The original program for individual taxpayers raised $51 million last year to help children attend private schools. This past year, a similar credit for corporations, passed in 2006, raised an additional $12 million. In addition, Arizona has voucher programs for children with disabilities and those in foster care, and a vigorous home-schooling movement, to boot.

Yet while Arizona seems like school-choice paradise to an outsider, even its system of choice is only a pale reflection of a true market system. Arizona enacted its charter-school law in 1994, and since then, approximately three students have newly enrolled into the Arizona school districts for each one exiting through charters and/or tax credits. Even the worst-performing school districts in the state have more students today than they did in 1994.

Watching deeply dysfunctional school districts continue to build new facilities to deal with over-enrollment is a far cry from the cleansing creative destruction of the market. Studies by Caroline Hoxby and later, the Goldwater Institute, found that public schools improve when facing significant levels of competition. But competition is the exception, not the rule, even in Arizona. Something closer to creative destruction occurs in the charter-school sector, where poorly performing schools and dysfunctional school districts are not immortal. Eighty-nine charter schools have closed in Arizona since the passage of the law, separating the wheat from the chaff.

While district schools outnumber charter schools by more than four-to-one in Arizona, charter schools make up nine of the top-ten performing public high schools in the greater Phoenix area, as ranked by Terra Nova based on reading scores. The top-ranked public elementary, middle, and high schools of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Tempe, and Mesa are all charter schools as well.

Defying a national trend, Catholic school enrollment continues to expand. So much so, in fact, that every Catholic school in Phoenix has either recently completed or is in the midst of a capital campaign.

So has competition been a panacea for Arizona's education woes? Far from it, but even Arizona has only taken tentative first steps towards a truly competitive system. Should Arizona lawmakers pursue other education reforms as well? Of course they should: we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Our public schools will never improve, though, until we align the interests of the adults working in the system with those of the children attending them.

Don't give up on us, Sol. Choice faces formidable political enemies and a public that is not ready for much creative destruction in schooling. We should not fail to take note of the real gains achieved over the last 18 years. Nationally, nearly one-fourth of K-12 students attend schools other than their zoned public schools, opting instead for an array of public and private options open enrollment, magnet, charter, private, and home schools.

Were trapped in a war of attrition with defenders of the status quo. But its a war we are winning.

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