Universal School Choice is Good. But It’s Not a Panacea

Neal McCluskey

The 1990 book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, by John Chubb and Terry Moe and published by the Brookings Institution, had a major role in school choice history, arguing that public schools are, by their democratically controlled nature, doomed to stagnation. Autonomous schools and choice for families, they convincingly explained, fundamentally change that. But the book contained one statement that still haunts the choice movement: We should see choice as a “panacea.”

Education funding following children to options their families choose, coupled with freedom for educators, is, indeed, a game‐​changer, moving us from a system of government control to one grounded in free people, with diverse values, needs, and desires, making decisions. It is consistent with a free society and immediately moves significant power away from special interests and bureaucracies. That is why the explosion of school choice programs since the onset of COVID-19, and especially the arrival of universal programs, are extremely welcome developments.

But we must keep expectations grounded. Choice is not a panacea for everything people dislike about education. In part that is because choice does not decide how to teach, it simply frees people to try different approaches. It does not determine the best school discipline policy, it just helps families decide for themselves if they want no‐​excuses, free‐​range kids, or something in‐​between. And there will likely be no single outcome indicator that everyone can point to demonstrate success or failure because we do not all agree on what constitutes success or failure.

The Expected Benefits of Choice

What do we expect to get from choice? First and foremost, more freedom – people with different values and desires are enabled to seek out education consistent with those things without having to defeat people who want something different. Families that want students able to choose the bathroom they use no longer have to defeat in political combat those who want access determined by biological sex. Those who want diversity, equity, and inclusion policies not having to politically thwart those who don’t. And so on.

Next, choice should put competitive pressure on schools to improve, because they must attract families to survive and thrive. The basic need for students should spur schools to try to get better at what they already do, and more importantly, to attract even more students—and funding—by finding better ways to educate.

Finally, choice should enable greater specialization, with some schools focused on artistic children, some on children with disabilities, some on kids who thrive in unstructured environments, and so on. Rather than having to try to serve all kids, which incentivizes aiming at the mythical “average,” or lowest‐​common‐​denominator content everyone will at least tolerate, educators can focus on the needs and desires of numerous subsets of real‐​life, unique children.

What Does Universal Choice Look Like?

The big movement in school choice over roughly the last year has been toward universal education savings accounts (ESAs). “Universal” typically means there is no income cap or other curb on who qualifies for funding.

An ESA, universal or otherwise, is different from a voucher in that money is put into an account in a child’s name and the funds can be used not just for private school tuition, but typically also tutoring, therapies, or other educational uses. Unspent money can usually accumulate over time, including in some cases carried over for college. The amount per child in universal programs is generally around $7,500, which is less than half of the roughly $15,500 spent per American public school student.

Universal programs tend to have limited regulations, especially avoiding requirements that chosen schools administer state standardized tests. They often require that some standardized assessment be administered, but it need not be the state test that, especially if coupled with ramifications based on performance, would de facto require private schools to implement public school curricula. The programs also sometimes have a couple of ramp‐​up years to reach full universality, including restricting access to students from specific groups, including those falling under income caps.

What Schools Will Be Chosen?

Annual allotments of $7,500 will not make famous private schools such as Exeter and Sidwell Friends affordable to most families, though they might help those on the margins of affording $50,000-plus tuition. But most private schools are not super‐​pricey. They are relatively low‐​cost, often religious, institutions. That’s why the average tuition nationwide is around $12,200—about $3,300 less than we spend per public school student. Also, many private schools, especially elementary, are $7,500 and below, making them affordable with just the annual ESA….

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