The Value of School Choice
January 9, 2014 01:17 PM
A key shift within the constantly changing landscape of American education is one of more choice by parents in choosing where their children are educated with public funds. Some school districts offer widely available choices through public charter schools, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, and open-enrollment in regular public schools. Other districts remain committed to the more traditional model of zoned schools, where nearly all students are assigned based on residence.
On January 8, 2014, the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy in Washington, DC released the results of its third annual Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI). This index is an analysis of school choice and competition in the nation’s one hundred largest school districts. The ECCI aims to create public awareness of the differences among districts in their support of school choice.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has been a strong advocate for the expansion of school choice. During the Brookings event, Cantor delivered a keynote address on his views on the future of school choice. “Right now, school choice is under attack,” Cantor said. “It is up to us in this room and our allies across the nation to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.”
“America is in the midst of an education revolution,” Cantor said, “with a shift toward more choice for families.” The Congressman said that five decades of investment and effort by the federal government to improve public education has not worked and students need an escape hatch from substandard schools. “The government’s approach to education reform is too slow, too sporadic, and too ineffective. And while we wait, we are losing generations of kids.”
Grover J. Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brooking Institution, pointed out that the expansion of choice in education is driven by a widely-recognized market model, positing that allowing students and families to choose schools will force education service providers to innovate and compete on the quality of their product. However, there is little available information about the current state of school choice in American education. Brooking’s ECCI attempts to fill that gap. The index is based on scoring rubrics within 13 categories of policy and practice that are important to the availability and quality of choice, and to the competition created thusly.
Based on these scoring principles, the Recovery School District in New Orleans and New York City Public Schools occupy the highest rankings in this year’s index. New Orleans scored 83 points (out of 100) and New York City, 73 points. Both districts occupied the same positions in the 2012 ECCI, showing a larger trend that districts show little year-to-year change in their commitment to or design of school choice. Denver was this year’s surprise, moving from 26th in 2012 to fifth place in this year’s index. Its ascension is attributed to its implementation of a unified application process for all its public schools, including charters.
School choice and competition are important components of efforts to reform public schools and provide a solid education for children. However, as both Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield, Center Coordinator, point out in their executive summary, choice and competition are not a panacea as education, like health care, is heavily regulated, involves on-time choices that are difficult to repair, does not rest on a strong base of evidence, and does not respond to market principles in the way an unregulated or lightly regulated market would.
Ideally, systems should be in place that encourage schools to compete on being among the very best while assuring a minimal standard of service providing all students the opportunity for advancement. Such a system requires attention to the parameters of choice and competition, both highlighted in the ECCI. This can provide a knowledge base for learning and instruction that is the foundation of efforts to improve schooling under any governance arrangement.