School Choice is Good – Part 2
For the past several years, the Missouri Secretary of State has partnered with the Hunt Institute to host the Missouri Legislators Retreat. This is a bi-partisan event created to present various policy ideas and discussions. I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on school choice at this year’s retreat. In framing the discussion, we were provided with two questions to consider. Below is my prepared response to the second question. You can read my response to the first question here.
The impact and effectiveness of school choice programs and policies vary based on multiple factors. What does a theoretical “good version” of legislation related to school choice look like? Are there specific examples you can point to?
Well, if you listened to my opening remarks, it may not be hard to guess what I am going to suggest. Choice is good and we need more of it.
After more than two decades, we don’t have charter schools outside of St. Louis and Kansas City. Why is that? Because our current policy requires charters to seek school district approval if they want to open in a district that is fully accredited. This is like allowing Wal-Mart to decide whether a Dierbergs or a Schnucks can open in its town. When it comes to charter school policy, we must, first off, allow charters to open throughout the state under the sponsorship of a university or the State Charter Commission.
Second, we must allow charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries. The average school district in Missouri has something like 1,500 kids. Part of the challenge with opening a new charter school is attracting students—this is particularly challenging when you are limited to a pool of 1,500. Students should be allowed to move across district lines to attend a charter school.
In fact, all kids should be allowed to move across district lines to attend another public school. This is especially true if your local school district moves to a four-day school week. Did you know that roughly a third of all Missouri school districts are now four-day districts? We have some new research coming out at the Show-Me Institute that you might be interested in. We surveyed 1,200 Missouri parents. You know which group was the most opposed to the four-day school week? Parents who cannot provide reliable childcare for their children—the people who will be most impacted by these decisions. I suggest full open enrollment, but at the very least, moving to a four-day school week should be an automatic trigger for open enrollment.
Close to 70% of Republicans and Democrats alike supported the idea of giving parents the right to transfer to another school district if their school moves to a four-day week. More than 60% supported offering a private school voucher.
When it comes to private school choice, again, we need more of it. Our current tax credit education savings account (ESA) program should be expanded. Now, I’m in favor of the state funding these accounts and providing every family with access to at least the state adequacy amount. We can look to Arizona and Florida as models. But I understand expansion is often incremental and there are incremental changes we can make with our current program. Here, the state needs to do three things:
First, remove all geographic limitations. There is no reason a student should be denied access to a scholarship account because they live just over a county line.
Second, increase eligibility. The program should be as near to universal as possible. Every parent should have the ability to send their children to the school of their choice.
I suppose those first two are really the same thing—increase access.
Third, we should increase the average scholarship amount. Opponents of school choice are funny in this regard. They remind me of that old quote by Woody Allen, “The food is bad and the portions are small.” They say “vouchers are bad . . . and the voucher amounts are too small.” Well, I may not be able to change their opinion on vouchers, but we can work to increase the amount!
Currently, we peg the scholarship amount to the state adequacy target, which is approaching $7,000. Yet, in public schools we weight the funding formula. We provide additional funds for special needs students, students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. We even weight the formula for places with higher cost of living. The ESA program should be allowed to do the same thing. A student with special needs or a student from a poor family should be eligible for more funds in this program, just as they are in public schools.
The bottom line is this—we should continue to push for expansion of school choice programs until every child in this state has multiple educational options. No child should have to attend their local public school because they cannot access another school. They should attend their local public school only if it is the right choice for them.