COVID-19 response gives school choice a new audience

Reaction and inaction inadvertently may make Milton Friedman's vision possible

The 11th edition of National School Choice Week kicked off days after the inauguration of Joe Biden, the most union-friendly president since Harry Truman.

You’d think backers of educational freedom would panic. The two initial favorites for U.S. education secretary were the current and former heads of the country’s two largest teacher unions. Instead, Biden chose Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona — who pushed to reopen in-person classroom instruction as COVID-19 persists (unions hate that) and in his current post is a charter school authorizer.

Education reformers see an opportunity from the in-your-face impact of COVID-19 on school-age kids: More than a year of forced virtual schooling in much of the country. Millions of public school parents became involuntary homeschoolers in March 2019. Many of their kids haven’t spent a minute with a teacher or classmates in shared “meat space” since then.*

We can’t chronicle the damage inflicted on children, parents, caregivers, and teachers. Learning loss is real, and it’s not fantastic. Locally, the News & Observer reported nearly 25% of Wake County high-school students failed at least one online class. Wake County school board member Roxie Cash said as many 30% of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches haven’t logged in regularly for online instruction. Cash is one of two school board members who wants K-3 kids back in class full-time ASAP.

Most recently, the superintendent in my former home of Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), decided the isolation of remote learning had caused a mental health crisis. Nearly 20 teens had died by suicide since last March, and Superintendent Jesus Jara said kids needed to go back to school.

Jara told The New York Times, “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”

The pandemic’s toll on a generation of students has shifted arguments for school choice from pushing programs and tactics (vouchers, charter schools) to existential questions about how much longer the 19th century universal public education model can handle 21st century needs.

Discussions now center around ideas such as “fund students instead of systems,” or “let the money follow the student.” My former John Locke Foundation colleagues are urging state lawmakers to expand Education Savings Accounts to help parents whose kids fell behind because they couldn’t attend in-person classes during the pandemic.

The Reason Foundation’s Corey DeAngelis, a relentless advocate of student-based funding, joined JLFers Terry Stoops and Bob Luebke Monday, Jan. 25, for a virtual presentation on the idea. Watch it here.

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Milton and Rose Friedman came up with this idea nearly 65 years ago. Even though they didn’t call it that. The Friedmans get credit for creating the concept of school vouchers, sending money to parents rather than schools. But you may not know they weren’t wild about the way vouchers first were structured in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Those programs, launched in the 1990s and defended by the courageous folks at the Institute for Justice, targeted low-income students only. They covered only a fraction of the cost of tuition at a private school. And IJ battled for years in court to make them happen, even if only a handful of low-income kids benefited.

The Friedmans thought what they called “welfare vouchers” didn’t offer enough money and lacked the reach needed to have much of an impact.

I know. Milton Friedman told me for a profile of the debate Reason published in 1997.

From the story:

If school choice is identified as an anti-poverty program, rather than an initiative for systemic reforms, momentum for structural change may be stifled. Even if inner-city performance improves under a system of vouchers, middle-class parents might not demand similar changes in their schools. "A program for poor people is a poor program," [Friedman] says.

IJ didn’t want to quarrel with two of their heroes. My friends Chip Mellor and Clint Bolick understood winning court fights and gaining public support for vouchers could take decades. When I was reporting the story, no state legislature had approved even the most modest K-12 means-tested voucher plan. Teacher unions would go ballistic, they did, and they do.

"Milton Friedman is right that his [universal] voucher proposal would most completely transform the education market," Mellor told me. "But the battles are now in a different arena. The fate of vouchers will be decided in the courts."

The Friedmans weren’t exactly saying “go big or go home.” Or were they?

Maybe everyone was right. Gradual but significant advances in school choice may explode as an unintended result of COVID-19. According to EdChoice, more than half a million U.S. students. benefited from some form of private school choice during the 2019-20 school year, either tax credits, ESAs, or vouchers (known as Opportunity Scholarships in N.C.). More than 3 million students were enrolled in public charter schools in 2017-18. Those numbers have grown.

When parents learned the pandemic would prevent their kids from returning to class last fall, they began pooling money to set up “pods,” hiring a teacher to educate a handful of neighborhood kids. The 21st century one-room schoolhouse.

More than 7% of North Carolina’s K-12 population was homeschooled before the pandemic. Imagine how those numbers could grow if ESAs or refundable tax credits were available in meaningful amounts.

Most traditional schools never will go away. In North Carolina, for instance, the constitution requires the state to provide a “sound, basic education” at no out-of-pocket cost to all students (visit the history of Leandro, if you dare!). Most parents still don’t have the means or the desire to ensure their kids are educated. That’s OK.

But the sorts of changes that emerged in mere weeks suggest that traditional schools will have to compete with other options. Realistic ones.

Even places like N.C., which mandate tuition-free public education, don’t require the state to supply every classroom and every teacher. Taxpayers provide the means but don’t have to produce the methods.

When I talked with Milton Friedman nearly a quarter century ago, he said modest, means-tested vouchers wouldn’t offer enough money to fuel the type of entrepreneurship education needed to shake up the system. He said any parent should be able to get a voucher equaling at least 50% of a district’s per-pupil spending. Wealthy parents would use their money to create what he called “Rolls-Royce” schools. These early adopters would develop technologies and practices that could be scaled into “McDonald’s” schools, costing less to operate and open to almost anyone.

What he had in mind was customizing education to fit the needs of students rather than the demands of school systems, staff, and administrators. It’s the focus of the work of my friend and former Reason Foundation colleague Lisa Snell, who’s now with the Charles Koch Institute’s Stand Together. She wrote:

My hope is that we will move to a “permissionless” education system that looks much more like the rest of the economy, where people use technology to support their individual decisions and are able to move autonomously through different service providers based on individual relationships. 

Sadly, it took a once-in-a-century pandemic to force the kind of entrepreneurial pluck parents used to maintain some level of learning for their kids. It’s hard to imagine all of them will meekly return to the old system without demanding significant changes, and plenty of accountability.

*Cards on the table: I am the proud product of North Carolina public schools. K-12 in Wilkes County; a bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill #GTHDuke. Two of my sisters were outstanding public school teachers in Wilkes. One spent more than three decades in the classroom, teaching grades 3 through 12. Her daughter runs IT for the district. Her daughter is an elementary school teacher in the county. My perspective: The vast majority of parents will find their local public school the best and only option for their kids. Allowing flexibility and demanding accountability will make traditional schools better and give options to those families for whom the neighborhood public school doesn’t work. Income and geography shouldn’t be barriers to learning.

Terry Stoops also clarified the parameters of Locke’s ESA proposal after the newsletter went out. I corrected it, and apologize for the error.

Speaking of Cards on the Table

Here’s the great Alabama-born, California-based bluesman James Harman: