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The ‘What the World Needs Now is Choice Sweet Choice' Awards

Thomas B. Fordham Institute for Expanding the Education Univers
Reason Foundation for Federal School Finance Reform

The past decades have seen school choice expand through charter schools, vouchers, tax credits (neo-vouchers), and various other mechanisms dreamed up after feverish evenings of reading Milton Friedman. While it’s true that all this choice has increased systemic inequities even as it has failed to improve educational outcomes, that’s no reason to stop or slow down—at least not according to two Bunkum-winning reports: Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice from the Fordham Institute, and Federal School Finance Reform: Moving Toward Title I Funding Following the Child from the Reason Foundation.

The Fordham report urges policymakers to bring the blessings of market competition to the selection of classes, envisioning a future when students design their own selection of online and off-line classes, offered by a variety of public and private providers. Unfortunately, the report makes no effort to actually evaluate the merits of the idea. It “assumes, without solid evidence, that course choice, electronic educational provisions, and the like are viable, effective, and proven methods,” according to reviewers and University of Southern California scholars Patricia Burch, Jahni Smith and Mary Stewart. “Accordingly, the piece rests entirely on assumptions and assertions.” The reader is left to ponder the next step after course choice. Perhaps our children might purchase individual lessons (and grades) through a bidding process on eBay?

Or they can just take federal Title I funding and head off directly to a private school, as proposed by the Reason Foundation in its report Federal School Finance Reform: Moving Toward Title I Funding Following the Child. Those lost in the antiquated “Good Ole Days” of the Great Society may have mistakenly thought that the purpose of Title I was to provide equal educational opportunities via compensatory services for needy children. It turns out that it’s really about school choice, if one takes the perspective of the Reason report, which argues that Title I funds, and other funds that states and districts may wish to contribute, should be distributed as a form of voucher (this is one version of what is called, “Title I portability”).

Under the current system, Title I is the federal government’s primary way of assisting schools serving large numbers of students meeting Title I eligibility criteria. So moving money away from those schools of concentrated poverty may seem counter-productive to the untrained eye. It might also seem odd to be telling low-income families that the way for them to receive better educational opportunities is to take $2,100 or so, somehow supplement it with their own money, and find a private school. Reviewer Gail Sunderman, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, concluded that the report’s recommendations are “likely to exacerbate existing inequities between schools within the same district rather than improve them.” But surely Sunderman and those who share such concerns simply fail to appreciate the miracle of school choice.