Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education

Tim Hoffine

The Brookings Institution
February 2010 

This report envisions a new role for the federal government in promoting school choice opportunities for students, and points to initiatives in Ohio (and in other places) that have expanded school choice options. It highlights Ohio choice opportunities—particularly voucher programs in Dayton and Cleveland—alongside those in New York, D.C. and Chicago, as among the few places where voucher programs exist.

A good primer for anyone interested in school choice generally, the report contains a fairly detailed history of school choice legislation and judicial decision-making (including the Cleveland-originated U.S. Supreme Court voucher ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). Broad enough in its scope to detail rationales supporting school choice, the report contains important details about different programs and is not shy about calling out the effectiveness of some of the programs.

Most importantly, the report focuses on ways the federal government can support school choice, such as by providing a framework for sharing information with families about their school options. Other recommendations hint at a more proactive role for the federal government, such as expanding the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s provisions for school choice for eligible students to include virtual schools.

The authors are careful to challenge the role of school districts in implementing school choice policy (specifically in terms of disseminating information about other schooling options), since they are “interested parties” in how students and families make decisions about education. Strangely, though, the report makes no mention of why the federal government would be a better platform from which to disseminate information on school choice options than individual states.

This omission is a reminder of the unresolved questions surrounding the appropriate state and federal roles in public education. While reviewing the historical evolution of school choice options, the report fails to do the heavy lifting required to make a convincing argument that one level of government can intrinsically serve better than another in this role, especially as it relates to school choice, one of the most controversial aspects of public education. Read it here.

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