The end of “school choice”

change aheadThe annual American Federation for Children conference is one of the country’s largest gatherings of school choice advocates. So it was notable, during the most recent conference in Orlando, that speakers regularly used the terms “parental choice” and “educational choice,” but not “school choice.”

This shift in semantics reflects an emerging trend that’s a game changer – the expansion of choice in publicly-funded education is increasingly including learning options beyond schools.

Florida’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome, is a good example. In the PLSA program, public funds go into a bank account that parents can use for numerous state-approved educational options, including private school tuition, a suite of different therapies, curriculum materials, instructional technology, and postsecondary education and training.

This ability to use public funds to pay for learning options beyond schools allows parents to customize an education that is most appropriate for their child. To that end, there’s no doubt that in coming years, parent-controlled educational spending accounts will become more and more common. This shift from state control of education funds to parental control, combined with the movement toward customized teaching and learning, is going to revolutionize public education.

It’s also going to complicate many of our current education reform debates, and maybe make some of them moot.

For example, our current regulatory accountability systems assume students receive instruction from a single provider. But increasingly, parents are using public education funds to access instruction from a variety of providers at the same time. So, to take one hypothetical, future example, how do we assign school grades when children are simultaneously receiving instruction from a charter school, a virtual school, a magnet school and a personal trainer? When four instructional providers contribute to a child’s yearly learning gains, accurately assigning responsibility to each provider is challenging.

This same challenge extends to using yearly standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. If a child receives language arts instruction from several teachers over a 12-month period, which teacher should be held accountable for this student’s standardized test score in language arts?

Our current testing debate also feels dated.

Technology is transforming standardized testing from an annual event to an ongoing process, one that continuously informs teaching and learning while still letting parents know how their child is performing compared to similar-aged children. When standardized testing is fully merged with daily teaching and learning, the debate about how much is appropriate will no longer be relevant.

While some of these old debates will fade away, new debates will emerge. For instance, which learning options should parents be able to spend public funds on? Should a parent be able to spend public education funds on a new iPad, or greater bandwidth at home? How about swimming lessons? How about horse therapy, which some parents of autistic children believe is effective?

These are not extreme examples. Our nonprofit, Step Up For Students, is grappling with some of these questions now as we administer the new PLSA program. (Step Up also co-hosts this blog.) They illustrate the challenge of determining how far to extend parental control in the expenditure of public education funds.

If done properly, transitioning control of education funds from government to parents will generate huge benefits for children, families and taxpayers. But the key is “if done properly,” and that’s the issue we’ll be grappling with over the next decade or two.

In the meantime, it says a lot about how fast the education landscape is changing when even school choice advocates don’t use the term “school choice” any more.