No, Virginia, There is No Such Thing as School Choice

The school-choice movement has grown tremendously over the past fifteen years. Reform organizations have sprung up all over the place. Four states have passed voucher legislation. This year, there are 2,996 charter schools serving tens of thousands of children in 41 states. Given that the first charter law passed in Minnesota just 13 years ago, this is remarkable.

And yet the percentage of American families who can freely choose alternatives to local public schools that are mediocre or worse remains small. There is no quick fix for this stunning lack of alternatives. The current administration may be friendly to the idea of school choice, but the federal government lacks the power to make choice a reality nationwide. The battle for school choice remains a slow, state-by-state war, one with fifty fronts and fifty chances for success or failure.

One of the most challenging fronts is Virginia. Virginia would seem to be a promising place to push the boundaries of school choice. Virginia is mostly Republican, more religious than most states in the union, and is, generally speaking, pro-family values. Poll data show that two-thirds of Virginians support school choice in principle. But oddly, the state is resoundingly anti-school choice. It ranks ninth from the bottom in the Education Freedom Index , a state-by-state survey by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute. “Virginia really doesn’t have school choice,” explains John Taylor, president of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, a market-oriented education and research organization . “We are years behind the majority of other states.” All Children Matter, a political action committee based in Michigan, sunk over $100,000 into the state to support choice-friendly candidates in the last election cycle. The group seems convinced Virginia is ripe for change. But it remains to be seen whether the group’s optimism is warranted. What is keeping Virginia at the back of the pack? It’s a troubling sign for the future of the movement if school choice can’t be brought to a place like Virginia.

Vouchers

Vouchers, government funds provided to families to use for their children’s tuition at private schools, are the favored school-choice initiative among free-marketers. They are also the most divisive and most difficult to pass, enact, and defend. In short, there are grave problems for vouchers. Thirty-six states, including Virginia, have a “Blaine” amendment in their constitution that prohibits the use of public money for tuition in private or sectarian schools. Encouragingly, some state supreme courts have taken a narrow reading of this restriction, allowing voucher programs as long as state money is provided directly to families and only indirectly to private institutions. But the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that such an approach violates the public-private funding ban.

“Virginia has very restrictive constitutional interpretations and precedents in regard to education,” explains Richard D. Komer, senior litigation attorney for the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice. Vouchers seem to be a moot issue in the absence of a constitutional amendment or an unexpected reversal by the court. School-choice supporters have therefore turned toward options acceptable to the judiciary, like charter schools. This policy has proven popular and successful in many states – but, as we will see, not in Virginia.

Charter Schools?

Charter schools are a compromise between a true educational market and the public school monopoly. A state or local school board charters the creation of provisional public schools that are generally more flexible and innovative. Charter schools are still subject to many public school regulations regarding teacher qualifications and curricula. They are licensed for a short time, usually three to five years. Their fate and freedom is ultimately under the control of the district or state school board that chartered them in the first place.

According to the nation’s leading clearinghouse for education reform information, the Center for Education Reform, only states with no charter laws have a charter school environment worse than Virginia, which has only eight active charters compared to 491 in top-ranked Arizona. State law gives Virginia’s 133 school districts almost complete control over the kind of policies that could result in more charter schools. Robert Holland, a senior fellow with the Arlington-based Lexington Institute, says Virginia is unlikely to build a meaningful charter system. The reason, says Holland, is that “final authority is in the hands of the local school boards,” which are typically controlled by the local education establishment. And the establishment types are rarely well-disposed to allowing competition within their respective fiefdoms.

“The original charter bill was written specifically to make sure there were no charters,” says John Taylor of the Virginia Institute, and there seems to be little prospect for major improvements. A recently passed charter law amendment provides increased transparency, extends the lifespan of charter schools to five years, and eliminates caps on the number of charter schools. But it does nothing to directly encourage school districts to charter new schools. Charter schools may be attractive, but they may also be a dead-end.

Tax Credits to the Rescue

     There is good news for school choice, it turns out, in the form of a relative unknown: the education tax credit. These targeted tax credits reimburse families for tuition and other educational expenses. Tax credits are perhaps the most viable route to school choice in most states, and they are a very promising tactic in Virginia, for several reasons.

First, education tax credits avoid debilitating legislative and constitutional obstacles because government does not provide tuition to any nonpublic institution, thus eliminating meddling from the system. They create a constituency for school choice with the passing of a single law, and allow the public to become gradually familiar with choice in education. Tax credits are both constitutional and more politically palatable. Virginia state delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter calls them “a fair and simple way to offer educational choice.”

To be sure, each state presents unique political problems, constitutional restrictions, and education laws, in addition to the bewildering spectrum of policy proposals that typically accompany debate over school choice. But regardless of the means, the goals of school choice should be clear: to increase parental control and choice by expanding the educational market. In Virginia, a handful of legislators have introduced tax credit bills over the past few years only to watch them die quietly in committee. Support is growing, but more Virginia Republicans need to take a stand for the goals of school choice.

Fear

Where there is political will, there is a policy way. The school-choice legislative effort is supported by two dozen or so politicians willing to risk the wrath of the public school establishment. As it happens, through all of this most Republicans have sat on the sidelines. The reason: They’re frightened. It is commonly assumed that suburban and rural whites either don’t care enough about real reform to make it a politically viable issue or, at worst, that such voters are hostile to school choice. The latter is false, of course, and the former is true only because so few politicians have chosen to tackle the issue.

The experiences of State Senator Ken Cuccinelli and Delegate Lingamfelter, both supporters of school choice, show that school choice is not the political third rail their Republican cohorts seem to think it is. Their districts are mostly white and suburban or rural, and so should be inhospitable to school choice, according to prevailing wisdom. But Cuccinelli and Lingamfelter both continue to be reelected by comfortable margins in spite of fighting unabashedly for reform, and in spite of fierce and repeated attacks from the educational establishment. The school-choice issue simply does not provoke the backlash politicians fear.

In Virginia, it is clear that the public supports the goal of school choice. According to the 2003 Virginia Commonwealth University Education Poll, “better than two thirds of Virginians (67 percent) agree, either strongly or somewhat, that – giving parents more school choice will help the public schools be held more accountable,'” and a majority directly support vouchers. There is support for school choice, but the public needs to be informed of the options by their representatives. In short, Virginia needs leaders who are unafraid to address the issue.

Transform the Argument

Although many of his colleagues are fearful of a confrontation, Lingamfelter thinks it’s impossible to avoid a fight with the education bureaucracy and their status-quo cronies. Instead, he says, “Republicans need to disabuse themselves of the notion that they can gain the support of the NEA.” They must get to work improving public education through serious reform, and must do so without the NEA. Senator Cuccinelli likewise believes that fear is dampening support for reform. He thinks that “Republicans are scared of being labeled the ‘mean guy.'”

Republicans will never outspend Democrats in the educational bidding war in which they are now mired. So they need to shift the focus of the debate to more favorable terms – real reform and real choice. In Virginia, like in many other states, that means confronting a budget crisis amid calls for more education spending. Republicans must face the unpalatable choice of either raising taxes or being accused of shortchanging schools. If the argument remains an issue of funding, Republicans will lose hands down. But Republicans can change the terms of the debate by emphasizing the educational benefits school choice brings, irrespective of funding levels, and the potential savings inherent in a newly competitive educational system.

Perhaps the most winning theme is school choice’s ability to give parents leverage and latitude over how their tax dollars are used to educate their own children. But school choice can also check the mounting costs of an inefficient government monopoly. Republicans should emphasize this benefit, pointing out that existing systems have routinely demanded funding increases at nine times the rate of inflation, all for stagnating test scores and scant evidence of real progress. In a Virginia Institute proposal for a K-12 tuition tax credit, Carlisle E. Moody, an economics professor at the College of William and Mary, and Jerry Ellig of George Mason University, show that their Universal Tuition Tax Credit “actually saves the Commonwealth an average of $6,194 per student.” A convincing case for education tax credits can be made to all Virginians with a combination of equity and accountability arguments. Choice allows poor children the chance to escape failing schools, advocates should say; it also makes schools accountable to parents who, in the end, would rightly determine the best school for their child.

Lil Tuttle, Virginia’s most active school choice proponent and head of Choices K-12, a school reform organization associated with the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, believes this latter point may well be the key to convincing voters and their representatives to support choice. “The social justice angle has changed hearts,” she explains, “but the economic angle will change votes.” The cost-saving side of tax credits coupled with the equity argument for helping poor children to escape from failing schools should create interest among suburbanites if politicians try selling it to them. Constituents can’t be expected to be interested if they have never heard a policy proposal. Legislators need to make their case: School choice gives concerned parents the power of the purse; it is the next step toward ensuring educational standards and accountability. The school-choice war can be won, but only if more Virginia politicians – and Republicans across the country – decide to join the fight.

Adam B. Schaeffer is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the
University of Virginia.

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