Despite sharing a great many ideas and ideals, school choice proponents have yet to agree on a common policy for improving education. This persistent lack of consensus can be traced, in part, to disagreements on the goals of reform, on the best strategy for formulating policies, on what constitutes valid evidence, on the methods for analyzing the evidence, and on the legal and political merits of alternative approaches. With all these underlying differences of opinion, it is no wonder that we have failed to unite behind any single policy prescription.
But this litany of differences not only explains the current gridlock, it also suggests a way to overcome it. Instead of arguing over our preferred legislative proposals as faits-accomplis, we should break down the policy formation process into discrete steps. By isolating and clarifying each point of disagreement along the way, we may find that many of our differences become resolvable, and by building upon these incremental resolutions, we can hope to forge a consensus.
Whom, for example, should a school choice program serve? While some reformers focus on low-income children, others seek to improve education for all families. Reformers also differ on whether parents’ choices should be totally unfettered or should be circumscribed by officially-mandated curricula and testing.
These differences of opinion rest on testable assumptions. The first assumes that the best way of serving the poor is with a choice program that targets them alone. The second assumes that state content guidelines and oversight can reduce unwise choices and forestall a Balkanization of society. By actually comparing alternative school systems in action, over time and around the world, we can determine whether or not these assumptions hold up. More broadly, we can determine what sort of education system does the best job of serving the public, and use it as a model for evaluating every aspect of our reform proposals.
The particular sort of education system that comes out on top in this survey of international and historical precedents is a parent-driven education market. Using the core characteristics of actual education markets as a guide, many of the school choice movement’s most protracted disagreements can be resolved empirically.
On the issue of whom a program should serve, universal programs are strongly favored over targeted, or narrowly means-tested, ones. Education markets function better – for everyone – when larger numbers of schools compete for larger numbers of students. Targeted programs are counterproductive since any reduction in the size of the marketplace limits the degree of competition and the diversity of options available, diminishing the quality and quantity of options from which families can choose.
On the issue of whether parental choices should be unfettered or circumscribed by the state, free choice is favored. Parents have historically made better choices for their own children than state-appointed officials have made for the children of others, so the assumption that government curricula will reduce unwise choices is unjustified. The notion that educational diversity Balkanizes societies into warring factions turns out to be not only mistaken, but actually backwards. Over the centuries, state compulsion, not diversity, has been the chief cause of education-related social conflict. State-imposed curricula and testing limit the choices available to families and spawn “education wars,” as different constituencies battle for control over what children are taught. When parents have been free to direct their own children’s education, such conflicts generally have been avoided.
On the issue of vouchers versus tax credits, the latter are found to be more effective, easier to enact, and easier to defend, than the former. One exception is the case of states whose revenues are drawn primarily from sales taxes, since it is difficult to apply a credit to a sales tax.
In summary, this paper openly confronts and dissects the key differences that have plagued the school reform movement. The school choice community is not immediately expected to unite behind a single policy prototype upon reading it, but it is hoped that we will make real progress toward that goal. Open and honest discussion of our differences can change minds, even among those committed to a particular reform strategy. Analysts at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, co-publisher of this paper, once favored vouchers over tax credits. They reversed their position after mounting evidence suggested that tax credits enjoy several key advantages over vouchers, although they do not oppose vouchers in those states where tax credits are impractical. At one time, the author of this paper supported the idea of a federal education voucher program, but was forced to withdraw that support after studying the history of education.
In this spirit of open-minded dialogue, readers are encouraged to put fingers to keyboards whenever they come across a point with which they disagree, and to share their thoughts with their fellow reformers. It is only through such a dialogue that we are likely to break out of the current policy gridlock, and bring about the educational transformation to which we all are so deeply committed.