School choice’s window of opportunity

Editor’s note: This commentary from Lindsey M. Burke, director, Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and Jason Bedrick, research fellow at the center, appeared Wednesday on The Heritage Foundation’s website.

In his essay “Opening Doors for School Choice,” Rick Hess has offered characteristically sage and sober advice to advocates of school choice. In the midst of the movement’s most successful year ever—five states have enacted universal education savings accounts or ESA-style policies so far, in addition to several more new or expanded choice policies—Hess urges advocates to leverage their momentum prudently.

The window of opportunity for school choice is still open, but who knows for how long? To take full advantage before the window closes, Hess advises advocates to focus on how school choice solves problems for parents; to pay attention to the details of how choice policies work for families and educators, from transportation to barriers to entry; to explain how choice policies better serve the public interest; and to ensure that choice policies serve all families, not just the worst off.

However, it is worth elaborating on a point Hess made in passing that holds the key to this recent progress. In explaining why parents embraced school-choice policies in the wake of the pandemic-era school closures, Hess observes:

Parents were left hungry for alternatives, especially amidst bitter disagreements over masking and woke ideology. This was all immensely practical. It wasn’t about moral imperatives or market abstractions. It was about empowering families to put their kids in schools that address their needs, reflect their values, and do their job.

The choice movement’s recent successes stem from a confluence of factors, but one key ingredient has been a shift in how some central players in the movement talk about school choice. In his seminal book, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,” John Kingdon argued there are fleeting moments in which a public policy problem, favorable political conditions, and a ripe policy idea are in alignment.

School closures and the politicization of the classroom posed a significant public policy problem for many families to which school choice could provide a solution, both in offering parents an immediate escape hatch to educational alternatives and in giving parents more bargaining power with their local district schools. When school officials know that dissatisfied parents can take their money and leave, they have a strong incentive to listen.

However, leveraging the favorable political conditions required choice advocates to connect with parents over cultural issues—an approach that the movement had previously avoided.

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BY Special to NextSteps