Report: School Choice Is the Next Education Revolution

Most school choice systems need improvement, according to a new report.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers remarks about his support of charter schools and tax-funded voucher programs that help pay for private and parochial schools at the Brookings Institution Jan. 8, 2014, in Washington D.C.
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While a handful of American school districts are making strides in expanding school choice opportunities to parents and students, the majority still have a long road ahead, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy.

The center's third annual Education Choice and Competition Index, which assessed more than 100 school districts, found that just 12 school districts scored in the "A" or "B" range for maximizing choice opportunities -- including charter schools, magnet schools and private schools -- and providing efficient matching and management systems.

Topping the list as the only three districts to receive A-level grades were the Recovery School District in New Orleans, the New York City Public Schools, and the Orleans Parish School District in New Orleans, scoring 83, 73 and 71 out of 100, respectively. Among the remaining districts, 45 received C's, 16 received D's and 34 received F's.

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Still, Brown Center Director Russ Whitehurst, the author and creator of the index, says America is in the midst of an educational revolution.

Comparing the freedom of choice to the United States' slot as a world leader to shopping, Whitehurst said during a panel discussion that the individual right to choose has been, until recently, limited to goods outside of education -- restaurants, dentists, doctors and stores, among other things.

"In fact, freedom as we understand it is very much bound to the ability to choose," Whitehurst said at a discussion about the report Wednesday. "Our freedom of choice rests on the availability of different providers of the services and goods we want. And if one doesn't serve our needs, we turn to another."

But within the last two decades, Whitehurst said the United States' public education system is moving away from a "local government monopoly" of school choice and more towards one that gives each family a maximum number of educational choices, from charter schools to virtual schools.

Still, Whitehurst notes in the index report that so many districts are still lacking because policies "antithetical to choice" are still the norm.

According to the index report, a high-scoring school choice system would give parents the maximum number of choices -- good public schools, magnets, charters, affordable private schools and virtual education -- while also providing an efficient matching system for parents and schools.

Under such a system, there would be no default school (everyone must choose), a common application, as well as a greater wealth of information on school performance that is readily available for parents. And for low-income families, the system would also need to provide subsidies to help cover, among other things, the cost of attendance if a school charges tuition, as well as any related transportation costs.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has become an avid supporter of school choice, particularly school voucher systems that provide scholarships to students from low-income families who want to switch to a higher-performing school, or a private school.

"For many families, living in poverty spans generations," Cantor said in the discussion at the Brookings Institution Wednesday. "Parents and grandparents all struggled to realize the American dream. School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and we must act fast before it is too late for too many."

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Cantor criticized an ongoing struggle between the state of Louisiana and the Department of Justice regarding Louisiana's statewide school voucher system. Although there are similar programs in Indiana and Arizona that have not faced legal challenges from the department, Attorney General Eric Holder argued vouchers issued in some Louisiana school districts, still under desegregation orders, "impeded the desegregation process."

In August, Holder launched a lawsuit seeking to block a portion of the state's voucher system, claiming it would unravel progress that was made during desegregation.