School vouchers are back in the news except that proponents of the idea, including Mitt Romney, are not using the word vouchers any more. For some reason voters don’t like that term, but they do like the idea of giving parents more choices, so vouchers — I mean “scholarships” and “choice” — are a big part of Mr. Romney’s education platform. Listen to him talk about it, and it’s as though we’ve traveled back in time; substitute Bob Dole for Romney and President Clinton for President Obama, and it’s the same debate we had in the 1990s. There is a lot more choice in education now than there was two decades ago: voucher programs for private and parochial schools are well established in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland, and states like Indiana and Louisiana have enacted them more recently. There are also about half a dozen state programs specifically for students with disabilities. Meanwhile, charter schools continue to proliferate; there are now more than 5,000 of these publicly funded alternatives that students can choose to attend rather than their traditional neighborhood school. But despite all that, this latest round of voucher-pseudonym talk probably won’t amount to much. That’s because school choice is a state-by-state game, not a federal one.
Here are three reasons why Romney’s proposals are less provocative than they seem:
1. This is about politics, not policy. Romney’s gambit here is politically clever because it forces Obama to be against choice and drives a wedge between parents and the teachers’ unions. In fact, Obama is for charter schools and public-school choice – charter schools are independently run public schools, and public-school choice schemes allow parents to choose from among existing public schools besides the one in their neighborhood – and his administration has used various initiatives to promote them. But voters don’t parse the issue the way wonks do, so it gives Romney an opening. Romney and other Republicans know they’re using a great talking point when they complain that the President is against allowing poor kids in Washington’s beleaguered public schools to attend better schools, especially when Obama’s own kids attend a highly-regarded private school in the city. But as policy, Romney’s blueprint is pretty weak soup because it doesn’t force — or even do much to encourage — states to expand choice. It merely says that federal dollars will defer to states and cities that decide to allow private-school vouchers.
2. There’s a massive loophole that lets everyone off the hook. The one tantalizing part of Romney’s proposal is his requirement for states to adopt open-enrollment policies that disregard school-district boundaries for public schools. That would be a big deal for poor parents. Open enrollment in theory would give inner-city kids and other kids stuck with lousy school options the chance to attend better public schools elsewhere. But there are two problems. First, as my former colleague, Erin Dillon, showed in a 2008 Education Sector analysis, there are just not enough good schools within a reasonable distance for these kids to commute to. Romney’s proposal also leaves a loophole wide enough to render the open-enrollment provision meaningless because it hinges on schools having sufficient “capacity” to accept transfer students. That’s the same hazard that doomed No Child Left Behind’s public-school choice provisions. Don’t want students transferring in? Then make sure you have no capacity, a metric that is difficult to verify. And in case you slept through the last several years, Republicans are against heavy-handed federal intervention in schools right now. They want to scrap the 10-year-old No Child law, which merely required states to come up with school accountability systems. It’s politically inconceivable that a President Romney would replace that law with a much more invasive mandate on states to essentially scrap school district boundaries and have a federal hand in deciding which students get to attend which schools.
3. School choice is a state and local issue. It’s true that Washington can prod school choice efforts along. But the key decisions about school choice plans — including whether to allow choice and charter schools in the first place — rest with state legislatures and within state constitutions. The President has a bully pulpit, sure, but it’s no coincidence that the school-choice program Romney is talking up the most is the voucher plan in the District of Columbia. That’s the only school district the President and Congress can directly control.
When you look around the country, the trend lines make it pretty clear that parents will be getting more choices in the coming years. That’s for the good because even if market-based competition in education is being oversold, the evidence is pretty clear that well-designed choice policies can benefit both students and teachers. Besides, in America, choice is like gravity — it’s irresistible. So while a President can accelerate or retard that progress at the margins, overall it’s going to happen regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
Note: Although there are some year-round schools, this is not a year-round education column. School of Thought will appear intermittently during the summer.
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