DeAngelis: ‘School Choice for America’s Children’ Is a Great Thing. Federal School Choice, as Ted Cruz Proposed, Is Not. Here’s Why
During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump raised the issue of implementing school choice for American children. However, his statement was not entirely clear in its meaning. It is possible that he was simply using his influential position to advocate for school choice in general, which would be commendable. On the other hand, he might have been referring to Senator Ted Cruz’s plan to establish a federal school choice program, specifically through federal tax-credit scholarships that could be used for private school tuition and fees. This particular approach would be a significant mistake, and here’s why.
The idea of "school choice for all" might seem appealing to families who are in need of more educational options, especially since access to private school choice programs has been slow to expand over the years. It has been almost thirty years since the introduction of the first modern voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990. Currently, there are 54 private school choice programs in the United States, but less than 1 percent of the school-age population actually benefits from them. The prospect of a federal program may be particularly attractive to families living in states with strong Blaine amendments, like Michigan, where it is extremely difficult to implement private school choice programs without amending the constitution.
Federal school choice programs may seem like a treat to families who have been denied educational freedom for too long. However, proponents of school choice must pause and carefully consider the potential risks and whether the benefits outweigh them before getting too excited.
First and foremost, families would no longer have the option to choose their preferred school if a federal program were in place. This is because private schools in all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, would be subject to the same regulations imposed by the federal school choice program. In the current system, if someone is unsatisfied with the school choice options available in a particular state, they have the freedom to move to another state. However, this would no longer be possible with a federal program, much like the inability to choose an alternative to the U.S. Postal Service. Moreover, not all private school choice programs are equal. Louisiana, for example, conducted the first random-assignment study in the world that found negative effects of a voucher program. Students who won the lottery to attend a private school in Louisiana performed significantly worse in math and reading than their peers in public schools after just one year.
The question arises: what went wrong in Louisiana? By examining empirical evidence, education scholars believe that burdensome regulations may be the root cause. Private schools participating in the Louisiana program are required to accept students randomly, administer state standardized tests, provide a "quality" curriculum, and consider the voucher amount as full payment. Due to these regulatory burdens, only about a third of private schools in Louisiana chose to participate in the program during its first year, while other less-regulated programs in different states saw higher participation rates.
However, low participation rates are only part of the problem. Studies have also shown that the Louisiana program attracted lower-quality private schools, as they are likely the most financially needy. This results in fewer high-quality options for families who are using vouchers.
Families in Louisiana, at least, have the option to move to other states like Florida if they wish to access better school choice programs. Unfortunately, moving states does not allow families to escape federal programs. If private schools in Florida opt to participate in the federal school choice program, they would be subjected to the same regulations as those in Louisiana.
Undoubtedly, Cruz’s proposed federal program would not be the worst-case scenario. He plans to introduce a federal tax-credit scholarship program, which is one of the best approaches to implement a school choice program without excessive regulations. Privately funded tax-credit scholarship programs are generally less regulated compared to publicly funded voucher programs.
However, privately funded school choice programs can still face significant government regulation. For instance, private schools in Florida that accept funding from its privately funded tax-credit scholarship program must gain approval from the state, pass an inspection conducted by the Florida Department of Education, administer standardized tests, and employ qualified teachers with a bachelor’s degree, three years of teaching experience, or special expertise.
Even if Cruz’s proposed program initially has light regulations, this does not guarantee that it will remain that way. A lightly regulated federal school choice program established under President Trump’s administration could potentially become heavily regulated under someone like Bernie Sanders in the future.
Corey A. DeAngelis is an expert on the field of education policy who currently serves as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute. He has attained a Doctorate degree in education policy from the prestigious University of Arkansas.