“Competition,” supposedly the miracle cure-all to improve education or any other product or service, comes in various flavors.
K–12 “voucher” systems vary in their implementation. In some states, vouchers are only provided to parents of children in schools found to be “failing” by some criteria—usually NCLB test scores or lack of highly qualified teachers. These are mostly urban schools, and the alternative schools available to these families are usually limited to a few other schools within a reasonable travel distance.
Limited options remain an obstacle even when vouchers are extended broadly to all parents of K–12 children, especially in rural states where there is no alternative school nearby. Where there are alternative schools, they may be selective private schools, religious schools, or home schools.
Availability of alternate schools also depends on history. When schools were supposedly desegregated in the south, many upper middle class and higher class white families paid to send their kids to private schools. Now, when these states issue vouchers, they may serve to perpetuate this divide. When vouchers are available to all, the wealthier can still add money to send their student(s) to more expensive private schools; those who cannot pay more cannot afford that extra cost. As a result, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program—the largest voucher system in the country with over 30,000 students—tends to drive a majority of white students to private schools.
Since higher tuition schools pay higher salaries and draw off the better teachers, vouchers do not provide poor families access to those higher-tuition schools. And that is another reason that competition does not work in education: it assumes a surplus of good teachers in order to stimulate improvement. There is no surplus. Given enough sorting time, this will drive the limited good teachers to the elite schools and leave economically poor schools with more unqualified long-term substitutes.
Educational savings accounts (ESAs) are a recent modification in school funding in FL, AZ, MS, TN, LA and NV. For example, Nevada parents can receive an ESA that resides in a savings account, these state funds earmarked for education of their children. The money can go toward tuition or other approved education-related expenses. It can even be used to attend religiously affiliated schools, to buy materials for home schooling, or to apply toward a mix of private and public school courses. In Nevada, the ESA requires that the student must have attended a public school for 100 consecutive days before becoming eligible for the ESA, thus excluding students who already attend private schools (a mechanism to avoid the elitism problem noted above). Virtual schools are not eligible for ESAs in Nevada, reflecting a growing awareness of their lack of effectiveness.
Online programs are eligible under Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that also cover therapy for special needs students.
But aside from several urban areas, Nevada faces the problems of a rural state with few to no alternate schools nearby most families. The Nevada ESA formula provides only $5000 per regular student per year and $5700 for low-income students and students-with-disabilities.
This last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that special education students deserved more than a “de minimis” education; a school must provide academic rigor. But while public schools have to follow the IDEA laws covering special students, private schools do not. While about 10 percent of school-aged children are enrolled in private schools, only one percent of students with disabilities are.
School choice is therefore a fuzzy term that is not necessarily synonymous with vouchers or ESAs. It can include public charter schools, magnet schools and a range of other programs that help pay for private schools or home-schooling. And what might work for high-density states with consolidated schools doesn’t work in sparsely populated rural areas.
In 1848, Horace Mann (who strove to establish primary education for all) believed that education of both rich and poor in the same classrooms would “...do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.” For over a century, the public school became a “melting pot” where rich and poor students sat together. Unfortunately, American society has again become separated into segregated communities with unequal opportunities across schools. Neighborhood schools in unequal communities make for unequal education, long since Brown versus Board of Education ruled that “separate is not equal.” Unfortunately, none of these school choice proposals functions to solve this inequality.