Even with limited leverage, Uncle Sam can promote school choice

Mitt Romney’s plan to voucherize (though he doesn’t call it that) Title I and IDEA has considerable merit—but it’s not the only way the federal government could foster school choice and it might not even be the best way.

It’s not a new idea, either. I recall working with Bill Bennett on such a plan—which Ronald Reagan then proposed to a heedless Congress—a quarter century ago.

It had merit then and has even more today, if only because the passing decades have brought so much more evidence that the original versions of these programs don’t do much for kids. As America nears the half-century mark with Title I, we can fairly conclude that pumping all this money into districts to boost the budgets of schools serving disadvantaged students hasn’t done those youngsters much good by way of improved academic achievement, though of course that cash has been welcomed by revenue-hungry districts (and states). Evaluation after evaluation of Title I has shown that iconic program to have little or no positive impact, and everybody knows that the No Child Left Behind edition of Title I—which encompasses AYP and the law’s accountability provisions—hasn’t done much good either. It has, however, yielded an enormous number of schools that we now know, without doubt, are doing a miserable job, particularly with disadvantaged kids. Yet we’re having a dreadful time “turning around” those schools. One may fairly conclude that Title I in its present form isn’t working and probably cannot.

empty backpacks
What if these backpacks were filled with dollars for students' educations? 
Photo by Dell.

So why not try strapping the money to the backs of needy kids and letting them take it to the schools of their choice? This would help them escape from dreadful schools. It would make them more “affordable” for the schools they move into. It would remove one of the main barriers (the non-portability of federal dollars) that discourages states and districts from moving toward “weighted student funding” with their own money. And it would certainly go a long way to change the balance of power in American education from producers to consumers.

Having said that, a word of caution is needed. In K–12 education, the states are ultimately in charge and few federal initiatives in this realm work nearly as well as intended. (NCLB is again a large, recent, case in point.) Legitimate questions persist about what, exactly, is the federal role in the K–12 sphere, particularly in reforming it. A good case can be made for Washington to generate sound data, safeguard civil rights, support research, and assist with the costs of educating high-risk kids—but setting the ground rules for schools and operating the system is really the job of states. Moreover, the federal share of the school dollar—a dime—isn’t big enough to yield much leverage over how the system works. That’s why the Romney plan is apt to do some good in states (and districts) that want to extend more school choices to their students—the federal dime can join the 90 cents in state and local funds in the kids’ backpacks—but won’t make much difference in places that aren’t willing to put their own resources into this kind of reform.

Similar caveats must be attached to other possible methods by which Uncle Sam could try to foster school choice. Which isn’t to say such possibilities don’t exist. Indeed, I can think of four more opportunities.

First, any number of other existing federal programs could be “voucherized.” Some are small, to be sure, but others are substantial enough to benefit many thousands of kids. The “impact aid” program—for districts with military and other “federal” youngsters—is $1.3 billion. Vocational education (“Perkins Act”) is almost as large. Many billions lurk in sundry “school improvement” and “innovation” programs that could be amalgamated and then placed in the hands of students rather than states and districts. And don’t forget the enormous Head Start program (run by the Department of Health and Human Services).

Second, a handful of programs that already promote school choice—aid to charter schools, the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, etc.—could be expanded.

Third, the Education Department could mount a competitive-grant program akin to Race to the Top for states and/or districts that want to engage in more school choice. (See comment above regarding where the Romney plan is most apt to work!)

Fourth, Congress could enact Senator Lamar Alexander’s proposed “G.I. Bill for Children,” which would give needy K–12 students grants (in participating states) the equivalent of Pell Grants with which to pay tuition at the private school of their choice. (Essentially the same thing could be done via tax credits, too. I cut my own policy teeth back in the 1970s on the “Packwood Moynihan Tuition Tax Credit” bill—which passed the House but was then killed by feverish public-school lobbying.)

Let me say it again, however. At day’s end, states and districts control 90 cents of the K–12 dollar and Washington is limited in what it can do to override their institutional, political, and constitutional obstacles to school choice. Private schools are also more ambivalent today than they once were about taking government money and the strings that are inevitably attached to it.

But the fact remains that school choice, both the public and the private kinds, is spreading across the land, making clear that a nontrivial number of states and districts are up for this. In such places, Washington can surely help by removing the obstacles that today’s gnarly formulas and rules place on federal dollars that might otherwise accompany state and local monies into kids’ backpacks. And via adroit use of competitive grants and—at least as important—the presidential bully pulpit, Uncle Sam may be able to give a modest boost to the movement to put families, rather than bureaucracies, in control of their children’s education.

A version of this post originally appeared on the RedefinED blog.

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