The right way to develop greenfield schooling

We’ve known anecdotally that our current slate of private school choice programs have done little to encourage new and innovative models of private education to flourish. Now a new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice backs up those assertions with evidence. In short: voucher and tax credit scholarship programs have yet to create new models of private schooling as successful charter school networks have for public education.

Our current slate of private school choice programs have done little to encourage new and innovative models of private education to flourish.

For researchers Greg Forster and James L. Woodworth, this justifies a move toward universal school choice. By encouraging larger numbers of students of all income levels, rather than just those who are poor or disabled, to take their public dollars to private schools states will create the conditions that entrepreneurs need to “innovate beyond the confines of the ‘default’ public school model,” Forster and Woodworth write in their study, The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice.

The term “greenfield” here is borrowed from Rick Hess’ portrayal of environments “where there are unobstructed, wide-open opportunities to invent or build.” Greenfield schooling, Hess argues, requires “scrubbing away our assumptions” about the traditional schoolhouse, but Forster and Woodworth would take this further and, in their rendering, “rethink how schools are designed from the ground up.”

But it’s little wonder why voucher and tax credit scholarship programs today haven’t ushered in an era of greenfield schooling in the private sector. As the authors recognize, the value of each voucher varies from state to state, but it’s generally too small to drive a greenfield revolution. The Milwaukee voucher, for example, is worth $6,442 per student. Operating revenues for Milwaukee charters, on the other hand, are nearly double that amount. So it goes in many other choice markets around the country.

So it makes sense, as Forster and Woodworth point out, that charter schools have inspired entrepreneurialism and innovation whereas voucher programs generally move kids from existing public schools to existing private schools, with modest academic benefits. But why turn to universal choice for the remedy? (Setting aside the fact that promoting universal choice is the mission of the Friedman Foundation.) Some charter school networks the researchers hold up as examples of innovation, especially KIPP, blossomed by serving a predominately low-income and minority population.

And these charter operators benefitted from a political foundation that was built to welcome change agents and entrepreneurs. Several states, especially Indiana and Louisiana, are laying that foundation now to expand private school choice. Someday, their efforts could drive change in all sectors of education, especially if that political climate allows more money to follow each child. That’s the more logical step to the greenfield.

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