Educational Choice Must Truly be Free

Oscar Wilde once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."

Those words from kept running through my mind while reading a rather stunning think piece in the public education establishment's paper of record, Education Week. The banner headline on the print edition: "How to Prepare for the Future of School Choice."

The heart of this prospectus on choice – co-authored by two savants of accreditation, one of the prime control mechanisms of government-run education – appeared in one long paragraph, part of which read, "We believe that in the not-so-distant future, choice will not primarily be focused on families and students selecting the particular school that best fits their needs. Instead, parents and students will create a customized educational experience from a menu of options that ultimately will become granular down to the course level."

That opening half of the paragraph reads very much like a reiteration of the rationale for the education savings account (ESA). That is the innovation veteran parental-choice warriors believe could move this cause forward from strictly private-school vouchers to broad-based educational choice among a range of providers in a free education marketplace. The key word for this new paradigm is "customization" – that is, the ability of families to customize a child's education by selecting what he or she truly needs.

Could pillars of the establishment actually be embracing the ESA? Not so fast. Here is the paragraph's second half, which offers examples with an implied preference: "A high school student, for example, might be able to enroll and participate in sports or extracurricular activities at the neighborhood public school, yet travel to a nearby magnet or charter school to take advanced math or science classes – all while taking online foreign language courses or completing college-level coursework with students from around the country."

Co-authors Mark Elgart (president/CEO of AdvancED/Measured Progress, a provider of accreditation services) and Belle Wheelan (president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accreditation powerhouse) did not explicitly rule out some private K-12 provider – a tutor, for instance – appearing on a government-sanctioned menu of choices. However, their preferences clearly tilted toward some form of officially managed or supervised choice.

In sharp contrast, EdChoice, a private choice advocacy organization founded by Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, offers this vision of ESAs, now adopted by six states, the first being Arizona in 2011: "ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds – often distributed to families via debit card – can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services."

It is important to note that surveys have shown most parents would choose to break from conventional public schools if they could. An EdChoice study found a plurality of parents (41 percent) named private school as their first option for their children's education, while 33 percent said they would select a regular public school. (First preferences of other families split between public charter schools and homeschooling.) Given that 83 percent of K-12 kids actually attend public schools, the existence of pent-up demand for real choice is obvious.

All this is not to suggest that Elgart and Wheelan were merely imitating the customization model advanced by private-choice advocates. They raised some important points, including the potential of online learning to bring more educational choice to rural areas; the need for regional transportation to enable children to attend classes of their choice in other jurisdictions; the desirability of better record-keeping for pupils amassing credits in multiple schools or settings; and potential ways to help parents find accurate and understandable information as they sort through their options.

A red flag did pop up in my mind, however, when they reached this conclusion: "Accreditation may ultimately provide an assurance of a baseline of quality that can guide parents as they weigh disparate options that best fit their child's individual needs."

A voluntary clearinghouse of information, privately funded, might provide a valuable service for parents weighing their options, but accreditation is an instrument of control that almost surely would stifle choice.

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

Oscar Wilde once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."

Those words from kept running through my mind while reading a rather stunning think piece in the public education establishment's paper of record, Education Week. The banner headline on the print edition: "How to Prepare for the Future of School Choice."

The heart of this prospectus on choice – co-authored by two savants of accreditation, one of the prime control mechanisms of government-run education – appeared in one long paragraph, part of which read, "We believe that in the not-so-distant future, choice will not primarily be focused on families and students selecting the particular school that best fits their needs. Instead, parents and students will create a customized educational experience from a menu of options that ultimately will become granular down to the course level."

That opening half of the paragraph reads very much like a reiteration of the rationale for the education savings account (ESA). That is the innovation veteran parental-choice warriors believe could move this cause forward from strictly private-school vouchers to broad-based educational choice among a range of providers in a free education marketplace. The key word for this new paradigm is "customization" – that is, the ability of families to customize a child's education by selecting what he or she truly needs.

Could pillars of the establishment actually be embracing the ESA? Not so fast. Here is the paragraph's second half, which offers examples with an implied preference: "A high school student, for example, might be able to enroll and participate in sports or extracurricular activities at the neighborhood public school, yet travel to a nearby magnet or charter school to take advanced math or science classes – all while taking online foreign language courses or completing college-level coursework with students from around the country."

Co-authors Mark Elgart (president/CEO of AdvancED/Measured Progress, a provider of accreditation services) and Belle Wheelan (president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accreditation powerhouse) did not explicitly rule out some private K-12 provider – a tutor, for instance – appearing on a government-sanctioned menu of choices. However, their preferences clearly tilted toward some form of officially managed or supervised choice.

In sharp contrast, EdChoice, a private choice advocacy organization founded by Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, offers this vision of ESAs, now adopted by six states, the first being Arizona in 2011: "ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds – often distributed to families via debit card – can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services."

It is important to note that surveys have shown most parents would choose to break from conventional public schools if they could. An EdChoice study found a plurality of parents (41 percent) named private school as their first option for their children's education, while 33 percent said they would select a regular public school. (First preferences of other families split between public charter schools and homeschooling.) Given that 83 percent of K-12 kids actually attend public schools, the existence of pent-up demand for real choice is obvious.

All this is not to suggest that Elgart and Wheelan were merely imitating the customization model advanced by private-choice advocates. They raised some important points, including the potential of online learning to bring more educational choice to rural areas; the need for regional transportation to enable children to attend classes of their choice in other jurisdictions; the desirability of better record-keeping for pupils amassing credits in multiple schools or settings; and potential ways to help parents find accurate and understandable information as they sort through their options.

A red flag did pop up in my mind, however, when they reached this conclusion: "Accreditation may ultimately provide an assurance of a baseline of quality that can guide parents as they weigh disparate options that best fit their child's individual needs."

A voluntary clearinghouse of information, privately funded, might provide a valuable service for parents weighing their options, but accreditation is an instrument of control that almost surely would stifle choice.

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.