MIA on SES

Imagine a world in which hundreds of thousands of low-income families experience educational freedom for the first time. Parents choose from a vibrant marketplace of educational providers: public schools, for-profit companies, faith-based groups, local charities, and even collections of innovative teachers.

In this world, the school choice movement-advocacy organizations, parent associations, market-based think tanks-would play a prominent role. Whenever the system threatened to take away the families' newfound freedoms or block access to critical services, these groups would hold parent rallies, write letters to newspapers, push the press to report the scandal, and otherwise make the needs of the children visible.

Of course, such a world already exists. It's the universe of supplemental educational services (SES). Except in this world, the school choice movement is missing in action. Why is that?

A key provision in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), SES is triggered when schools receiving Federal Title I funds fail to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years. At that point, districts must offer low-income students in these schools free after-school tutoring through any of the more than 700 nationwide providers that the state approves (whether public, private, or for-profit). In theory, parents simply choose the one that best meets their children's needs, and the per pupil share of Title I funds ($1,500 on average) follows the students to the tutor of choice.

This program is the first federal attempt to attach dollars to students and make those dollars "portable"- thereby breaking the traditional means of fund delivery which places districts in the driver's seat. But choice advocates show little enthusiasm for it, in part because they're still angry that President Bush took his voucher proposal off the table to get Senator Ted Kennedy's support for NCLB. Some believe SES puts too much power in the hands of state education bureaucrats, who have the right to approve providers, and local education bureaucrats, through whom the funding for tutors must flow.

Whatever the reason, advocates who choose to ignore SES are missing an opportunity to learn how to do choice more effectively. For example, empowering parents to make choices for their children does little good if they don't have the necessary information to select wisely. Sometimes districts don't have the resources to provide the information, other times they lack the will.

Consequently, many parents are lured into accepting providers for reasons unrelated to their ability to serve their children well. In Chicago, for example, parents have over 40 providers to pick from during this school year. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, some providers have differentiated themselves by offering parents cash payments, video game consoles, or other incentives for enrolling their children. Hardly a good reason for selecting a provider. Sometimes parents in the Windy City select a provider simply because it conveniently serves their students on the school site.

How much better choices could parents make if there were a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for providers? But states have neither the capacity nor the funds to monitor and evaluate SES providers. Consequently, many students end up in sub-standard programs. School-choice advocates should be particularly interested in SES's problems with quality. If left unremedied, they could cast a dark shadow on future efforts to expand choice and to allow newcomers to build innovative programs for low-income students. The choice movement needs to be involved in offering solutions.

Another reason that choice advocates should care about SES is that the parents who benefit from the tutoring program are the same ones most likely to support school choice. Most of the families offered SES are, for the first time, tasting the flavor and challenges that come with educational freedom. If their initial experience with a reform along the lines of SES does not offer confidence and hope, future attempts to mobilize them for greater parental choice will be met with skepticism-as they should be.

When Congress enacted a small school choice program in the District of Columbia (the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Program), an outside entity called the Washington Scholarship Fund got the job of enrolling low-income students in the program. It took WSF dozens of parent meetings and nearly $1 million (in public and private funds) to attract approximately 5,400 applicants, of which 1,700 eventually matriculated into private schools. Like those who qualify for SES, most of these students came from families that attended public schools for generations and were completely unfamiliar with the process of choosing schools. SES could benefit from a WSF-type organization in each district to help guide parents on making good decisions.

Those who believe in the power of parental choice can contribute to SES's future success by demonstrating that the road to parental empowerment does not stop at enrollment. Low-income parents, like their middle- and upper-income counterparts, want what is best for their children. If enough parents make good tutoring selections, the school choice movement will have another way to demonstrate how parental choice can lead to quality education. The choice is ours.

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April 12, 2006