The new economic development program: school choice

Editor’s note: This commentary from Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice and a reimaginED guest blogger, appeared Thursday on forbes.com.

Spend any time around a state capitol and you will hear the phrase “economic development” about once every 10 minutes. This makes sense.

Every program that politicians want to institute has to be funded by taxes. Taxes are paid as the result of economic activity. More economic activity, more taxes. More taxes, more programs. More programs, happier politicians.

Setting aside the thorny issues around politicians’ stewardship of those tax dollars, economic development is good for pretty much everyone else as well. Strong communities are built on a foundation of economic activity, and good jobs can draw people to a city, state, or even country.

Politicians are constantly looking for new programs to promote economic development. They often make terrible decisions in this quest.

My hometown, Kansas City, straddles the border between Missouri and Kansas. For decades, politicians on each state line poached businesses from the other side with sweetheart tax incentive deals and other forms of corporate welfare whose costs were clear and whose benefits were often illusory. Even if there were benefits, they were almost immediately cancelled out by the politicians on the other side of the state line doing the same thing for someone else.

Is there a better way to try and attract businesses and the jobs they create? Politicians should consider school choice.

Imagine this pitch:

If you locate your business in our state, your employees will be able to choose from a wide variety of public and private schools. In fact, we have a program that allows you to put your child’s education funding in a flexible-use spending account that you can spend across hundreds of eligible providers. (Why yes, that does sound a lot like the health savings account you offer your employees as part of an enticing pay package.)

But it isn’t just that. We have a thriving network of microschools, small schools that offer a level of personalization and community that is next to impossible in a large school. We have some amazing charter schools that have focuses in everything from STEM to classical education.

We’re open to and have a vibrant homeschooling community. And, our public school system has an open enrollment program that allows your child to attend any public school in the area, even if you don’t live in that school’s attendance zone.

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