Caps on choice are counterproductive
The perseverance of a mother can bring the shortcomings of many school-choice programs into sharp focus.
Consider a woman named Mary Rehberg from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who knows there’s not much chance she’ll get a voucher for her son in Wisconsin’s newly expanded choice program—but she’s applying for one anyway. The state expanded the Milwaukee and Racine programs to serve all of the Badger State (population 5.5 million), but lawmakers capped the expansion at 500 vouchers.
“The numbers are hopelessly against us getting a voucher,” Rehberg told a reporter last week after attending an information session about the program at a local Catholic school along with 100 other parents. “But by applying we can demonstrate to our state representatives how serious we are about this program.”
History might even be on her side. The Alliance for School Choice has reported that legislatures in six states expanded their voucher and tax-credit scholarship initiatives last year after demand for those programs spiked and waiting lists swelled with thousands of names. But expansion was typically done incrementally. Waiting lists remain high in many cases, including at the nation’s largest private-school-choice program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
New programs aren’t faring much better. Over the weekend, North Carolina lawmakers approved a budget that includes a new school-voucher program, but they budgeted a paltry $10 million to sustain the program. Earlier iterations of the bill called for increasing that amount to $40 million in subsequent years, but that provision was scrapped at the eleventh hour.
This containment would be less surprising coming from legislatures where power is split between Republicans and Democrats. But Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina all are under GOP control. Whatever political calculations these putatively choice-friendly lawmakers have made, they have mostly served to frustrate constituents like Mary Rehberg.
It’s time for a different political calculation—and a grand bargain at that: Lift the artificial caps and allow supply to meet demand, and in return, hold participating private schools to account for the outcomes of their voucher students.
Just a couple of the more than thirty private-school-choice programs nationwide currently keep private schools from enrolling new voucher kids if results on a required standardized test are consistently bad. Those programs are in Louisiana and Indiana, and neither has done much to curb or cap enrollment (though each has some income and eligibility restrictions). Other programs have taken a looser approach to outcomes-based accountability. The newest, North Carolina, makes voucher students take a standardized test (leaving it up to the school which test to administer) but does nothing to hold schools to account for their results.
Parents like Rehberg might want to see better results, and they should. A focus on outcomes would 1) give parents some objective, comparable achievement data that they can use to help determine which school might be in their child’s best interest and 2) give political cover to lawmakers who want to serve more families while pointing to quality control.
Simply capping or restraining these programs accomplishes neither of those objectives. All it does is ignore the demand that is so obvious.