Where talking points fall short on federal school choice policies

Have you heard? School choice is a bit of a hot topic in Washington lately.

But whether — much less how — the federal government should help expand parental choice can be a thorny question.

Indiana Rep. Luke Messer is one of the biggest school choice advocates in Congress. He’s also a federalist who wants to keep education policy decisions at the state level. But he’s said repeatedly that there are still things federal lawmakers can do to expand educational options.

During an event hosted by the Hoover Institution, he said a school choice “cavalry” has arrived in the nation’s capital, led by Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.

“Frankly, this is a sea change in this movement,” he said, echoing comments made Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the panel vetting DeVos. “Her ideas are in the mainstream.”

When the federal government and private school choice intersect, pundits often get confused. Two commonly distorted issues, federal mandates and  school accountability, were batted around at the Hoover event.

Avoiding state mandates

Andy Smarick, a Maryland state Board of Education member and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said all the talk of federal school choice policy brings flashbacks of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, teacher evaluations — areas where states enacted reforms, then the federal government got involved, and wound up jeopardizing the policies by raising the political stakes.

“It just makes me a bit nervous,” he said, adding: “As a conservative, any time a conservative says it’s time to go big … especially on education, I start to think, hmm.”

Some wonks  have amplified this sort of concern, arguing the federal government should stay away from school choice policy altogether.

But there’s also a consensus taking hold among lawmakers like Messer and advocates like Virginia Gentles of the American Federation for Children. Federal school choice initiatives shouldn’t dictate policies to states. And for the most part, they should support existing programs, rather than create new ones.

“States have to opt in” to proposals like a Messer-sponsored bill that would allow federal Title I funding to follow low-income students to whatever school they attend, Gentles said. “We’re not talking about anything that would mandate the states.” States that wanted to keep their existing funding systems in place could do so, but states with large school choice programs would have more flexibility to decide how federal funding would support low-income students.

Another idea that seems to be gaining momentum among Beltway choice advocates is a federal tax credit scholarship program.

Gentles said the goal should be to “complement what’s going on in the states.” The government could offer tax credits to people or corporations who want to donate a portion of their federal income taxes to scholarship funding organizations that already operate in states like Florida. (One such nonprofit, Step Up For Students, publishes this blog and pays my salary.)

That would allow people in any state in the country to support private school scholarships for low-income or working-class students. And it might encourage more states to create tax credit scholarship programs by it piggy-backing on existing state programs. But it wouldn’t force private school choice programs on states that don’t want them.

Holding schools accountable

In one of the video clips making the rounds after Tuesday’s Senate hearings features Democrat Tim Kaine grilling DeVos on school accountability.

She said, repeatedly, that she believes in accountability.

She seemed to sidestep the commitment Kaine sought: To insist, in Kaine’s words, on “equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding” — district, charter or private.

But it would have been difficult to give a simple answer that was also honest. If federal funds are flowing directly to students private schools, or supporting state-created school choice programs, this issue becomes more complicated than meets the eye.

Smarick, for example, asked about a private school where 499 students pay their tuition privately and one attends with the help of a publicly funded school choice scholarship. Would it make sense to impose the same testing and reporting requirements on that school as the government would require for a school where all 500 students receive public funding?

Right now, testing requirements vary in private school choice programs. Some have no testing requirements at all. Some, like Florida tax credit scholarships, require students to take national norm-referenced tests. Some voucher programs require participating students to take the exact same tests as their public-school peers. But private schools are subject to another form of accountability. If parents aren’t satisfied with the education their children receive, they can move to a different school.

Charter schools, meanwhile, may be most accountable of all. They are subject to public-school testing requirements and parental choice, plus they have performance contracts. Failure to live up to those requirements could mean they get shut down.

What would a system that holds all these schools equally accountable actually look like? What should it look like?

“These are actually tough questions,” Smarick said.

And they’re the sort of questions that, like never before, may be on the front burner in Washington.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.