Early lessons, questions to ask on implementing universal school choice

Editor’s note: This commentary from Patricia Levesque, chief executive officer for ExcelinEd, appeared recently on the ExcelinEd website.

In the span of just a few years, more than a dozen states have gone from nibbling at the edges of school choice to a full-throated embrace of universal education scholarship accounts or targeted ESA programs. These life-changing opportunities offer families the ability to customize a child’s education in ways we policy wonks could only dream of when the parental choice movement first began to take shape decades ago.

With unencumbered choice policy sweeping the nation, there’s no turning back: Families who have access to K-12 options will not have to accept a school that’s assigned to them based on where they live.

For those new to the most flexible form of school choice: Universal ESAs empower parents to pay for myriad educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks, therapies, exam fees, technology and other educational materials.

Universal choice means students can attend a private school, supplement their education with tutoring or technology, participate in a home education program or enroll in public school part-time to access their courses of choice. Unlike traditional voucher programs—which historically were designed to serve low-income families, students with special needs or families with children in failing schools—universal choice programs, including ESAs, are available to all families, regardless of income or school district.

But as we know from states like Florida, Arizona and Indiana, where public and private school choice have been the law of the land for some time, passing a program is just the beginning. I was pleased to recently join advocates from those states for a podcast exploring what comes next for states as they set up their educational choice programs.

The answer is simple: Implementation is everything, and implementation is so much more than setting up an initial framework.

For parents to use ESAs effectively, they must first know that the program exists. There also must be a clear and streamlined process for setting up the scholarship accounts, a user-friendly approach for managing funds and a comprehensive list of eligible schools and providers from which parents can choose.

And beyond these basics, lawmakers and public officials in states that have universal ESAs will likely need to tackle several big policy issues as their implementation of universal school choice moves forward:

SUFFICIENT FUNDING FOR ALL ESA STUDENTS: Is there sufficient funding for the program, especially when it comes to funding that follows low-income students, students with special needs and other at-risk students?

FUNDING AT ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT: Is local funding, not just state funding, following the student? States may need to make up for the local share or require local funds to follow the student to make that student financially whole.

TRANSPORTATION: Are parents able to access the educational options that work best for their children? The physical act of getting to a provider can be an enormous barrier for many families.

PRIVATE SCHOOL SUPPLY: We know that parent demand is growing for private and nontraditional schooling, but in many states the supply side is not keeping up. States might need to consider some supports similar to those created in the charter school space, such as revolving loan funds for school construction, low-interest state-supported financing and access to unused public school facilities.

LOCAL INTERFERENCE: Whenever choice expands, those who wish to maintain the status quo react. Opponents are finding less success with traditional legal challenges lately, as courts continue to find in favor of school choice programs. So, choice opponents are getting creative and turning to the local level, where interference can be less obvious, such as misuse or modification of zoning policy or health code provisions to prevent providers from serving families. States need to be on the lookout for attempts to thwart choice using local rules that were never intended to apply to K-12 education.

NAVIGATING CHOICE: States like Florida are thinking ahead to provide parents, especially low-income families, with navigation services to help them figure out how a program works so they can obtain the outcomes they seek for their children.

The passage of universal ESA programs across the nation means millions more students will be able to access customized learning options. However, in order for these programs to be as effective as possible, policymakers must continue to ensure seamless and smooth implementation that centers on parents, educators and service providers and allows for continued refinement as the program matures.

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BY Special to NextSteps