Could We Depoliticize School Choice?

Unveiling his education plan for the nation, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, this week spoke first for the principle of school choice. He promised, if elected, to use federal dollars to encourage states to offer more choices to students from low income families, including traditional public schools, charter schools, digital schools—and private schools, if states allow it. He went on to promise more transparency in school performance—better school report cards—and more support for innovative state policies to attract and retain top teachers.

While responses to the speech are just beginning, it is predictable that the governor’s mention of private schools will prompt the most heated—and negative reactions. The governor not only endorsed private school choice in concept, he promised to maintain DC Opportunity Scholarships, which opponents of private school choice have made their top priority to kill.

As a long-time student of school choice (and, full disclosure, an adviser to Romney’s education team) I anticipate the governor is in for a bit of moral outrage—for undermining, threatening, jeopardizing, disrespecting—or, insert verb of offense here—our nation’s public schools. This is really unfortunate. Not for Governor Romney, but for our most disadvantaged students. The fact of the matter is, low income students desperately need better schools, whether the ones they now attend or options that might be made available to them. Most of those options are now and will be public schools. Two million students now attend some 5,000 public charter schools in forty or so states. Millions more choose schools within their public school districts. Of course, many millions choose public schools by choosing their residence.

The Obama administration has advocated for school choice. Its signature competitive grant programs require states to ease restrictions on charter schools. So do its stipulations for states who want waivers from NCLB regulations. The Obama administration recognizes that a vigorous charter sector is important for providing choices, especially in low income neighborhoods. Charters are important for stimulating improvement in all public schools—and providing even more quality choices—as research has clearly shown that they do. I applaud President Obama for his pro-charter measures.

Governor Romney has taken a step further, arguing that private options ought to be available, too. More competition is likely to be a good thing. But private schools are not the main thing. Most of the choices and most of the competition under any presidential administration will be among public schools. This is an idea, a long time in coming and now well established throughout the country, especially in inner cities, which is widely embraced by the public. Let’s not be distracted by the political bogeyman of private schools. Let’s not politicize the debate over school reform to find wedge issues or accentuate divisions. Let’s give credit to Governor Romney for recognizing that choice cannot be effective without ample choices. But let’s not be distracted by the issue of private schools. Let us discuss how best to give our neediest school children excellent options, recognizing that under any scenario those schools will be mostly public.

My colleague at Education Sector, Anne Hyslop, attempts to do just that, in the accompanying post. Based on her ongoing research, Anne offers her perspective on Governor Romney’s proposal, written as Education Sector always tries to write—based on the facts and not on the politics.

-John Chubb

This blog entry originally appeared on the Quick and the Ed.

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