Politics & Policy

The Way Forward for School Choice — It’s Not Vouchers

After the pro-life cause, school choice is the issue that most ennobles the conservative movement. It is, or should be, a basic human right that all parents should be able to choose what kind of education their children get. And it is a basic principle of social life that innovation and best practices emerge from decentralized, bottom-up experimentation, not from top-down bureaucratic mandates.

While the ideal of school choice is granted, there are, as always in public policy, devils lurking in the details. The how matters as much as the what.

The lodestar for conservative advocates of school choice is school vouchers — take whatever the state spends per pupil, and instead let the parents spend it on the school of their choice, private or public, secular or religious. Vouchers have been a rallying cry for the conservative movement for decades.

But there is reason to think that vouchers — while better than the status quo, as are charters and every other form of school choice — are not what the conservative movement should look to as its lodestar.

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Firstly, there is one problem with vouchers that is the pitfall of many variations of conservative public policy. Conservatives often look at public services and want to privatize them. The idea is not only that the private sector can be more efficient than the public sector but also that privatization will give people more choice and perhaps even transform how public services are rendered. It is also a vision that seeks to give the power back to “We the People,” by letting everyday citizens, acting as informed consumers, exercise choice in how public services are rendered.

It’s a great idea in theory, and in practice it has led to many improvements in public services in places where it has been well implemented. But many times, in practice, it also leads to a public-choice problem that conservatives know all too well: the problem of concentrated gains and diffuse benefits, and of crony capitalism. When not done right, privatizing a public service can simply lead to enabling for-profit cronies who are really more efficient at hoovering subsidies from government. This is one of the big problems with Obamacare. Conservatives are increasingly realizing that private prisons and for-profit higher-education companies, for example, have often been a mixed blessing, often existing simply to take public subsidies rather than serve the public.

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What are the odds that a full voucher system would lead to a situation like the for-profit higher-education system? They are not negligible.

There is no divine law that says the best way to educate children is to warehouse them in the same building 200 days of the year.

But there is a more important, positive reason why vouchers are only a stepping-stone to the best conservative option: Even vouchers are one-size-fits-all.

Instead, conservatives should fix as their lodestar the idea of K–12 spending accounts. It’s the same idea as a voucher, but instead of a single check, parents have a spending account that they can choose to spend on one school — or on a menu of educational options.

Millions of parents choose to homeschool. For sure, many do so because they are underserved by their local options and would not be if they had vouchers. But many also do because they want to homeschool. These parents would be ill served by a voucher.

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More importantly, what education means and ought to mean in the 21st century is changing. There is no divine law that says the best way to educate children is to warehouse them in the same building 200 days of the year.

Khan Academy and other education startups are changing not just how kids learn but where they do it. The startup DIY seeks to be an online equivalent of the Boy Scouts: Kids earn badges and other online chits for doing practical things in the real world, and mentor each other in doing so.

#related#As the writer Matt Crawford has argued, for many young people apprenticeships are a better option than formal schooling — and some training in a real-world trade should probably be required of all of us. Apprenticeships, internships, practical learning — these are all formative experiences, and except that we collectively expect as a society that “schooling” is something done in a room for a number of hours each day, there is no reason why these should not be considered schooling.

Aren’t there any public-choice pitfalls with K–12 spending accounts? What counts as school spending? Can’t a parent argue that a Caribbean cruise is also a learning experience? There will be, of course, gray areas. The best answer is to leave those sorts of issues up to the states, which can compete, and see what works best. By increasing the number of educational actors out there, a K–12 spending account would lessen the risk of crony capitalism that a developed voucher would likely lead to.

But the bottom line is that true school choice involves not just your choice of school, but your choice of schooling. Vouchers would change what a school would look like. K–12 spending accounts would change what schooling would look like.

— Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a writer based in Paris, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist at TheWeek.com.

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