A Recap of the School Choice Policy Forum

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On May 2, 2017, Education Commission of the States and the Council of Chief State School Officers co-hosted the School Choice Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. School choice is increasingly an area of great interest nationally, and this special convening provided an opportunity for education leaders to discuss best practices, state experiences and recommendations to guide future federal school choice policymaking efforts. This two-hour event included robust panel discussions about school choice issues from both the state and federal perspectives. 

Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, the incoming Education Commission of the States Chair, gave an overview of school choice in his state, highlighting how the state’s school choice landscape has grown since the state’s first charter school laws were created in 2010. There are currently three charter schools in the state, and two voucher programs for students with special needs have been created since 2013. Gov. Bryant stressed that the growth of school choice is one of the largest education movements in Mississippi’s history.

Andy Rotherham (Bellwether Education) facilitated a panel discussion about state-level school choice issues. Panelists included: Charles Barone (Democrats for Education Reform), Howard Fuller (Marquette University), Hanna Skandera (New Mexico Secretary of Education) and Doug Tuthill (Step Up for Students).

Although discussions about school choice often center around voucher programs and scholarship tax credits, school choice encompasses a broad range of programs. Panel members agreed that school choice is here to stay and growing, so we need to address its challenges. A few of the challenges discussed include:

  • Equity: The ability to selectively decide where to move or purchase a home based on the school or school district is itself a form a school choice, and one that is not available to everyone. Ensuring broad access to school choice programs can be empowering. However, choice programs can sometimes have unintended selectivity issues.
  • Managing growth: Choice programs need to grow at a rate that ensures educational quality but also with enough momentum to create visibility. If programs grow too quickly they can attract “bad actors” who do not prioritize quality, but programs that expand too slowly may not draw parents and students who would most benefit.
  • Community needs: School choice programs that work in some districts or states may not work in others. Different communities have different needs and capacity for school choice programs, which is illustrated by New Mexico’s experience. The state has charter schools and open-enrollment policies, but the state has many small, rural school districts. Thus, many students in New Mexico simply do not have access to another school through open enrollment or a charter school. Instead, the state has looked to develop school choice options like blended or personalized learning.

Howard Fuller was Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools while the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was implemented. He shared four lessons learned throughout the program’s 25+ years.

  1. Balancing government regulation of school choice programs is difficult. Autonomy thrives with minimal government involvement, but that may not lead to educational quality. Conversely, over regulation can destroy the autonomy needed for good educational outcomes.
  2. The argument that school choice programs allow states to educate students for less money is not equitable.
  3. Parental choice alone does not drive educational quality, as people make choices for many reasons.
  4. Although Milwaukee’s program started out with bi-partisan support, it isn’t clear that school choice is a bi-partisan issue in the long term.

The second panel discussion looked at school choice issues from the federal level. Chris Minnich (Council of Chief State School Officers) facilitated, and panelists included: Jason Botel (Acting Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education), Jacque Chevalier (Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott’s office) and Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita (House Education Committee Chair).

While there were many differences of opinion during this panel, the panelists had positive discussions on how transportation access is an important issue for school choice programs. In some cases, transportation, or the lack thereof, can be a barrier for some students to participate in choice programs, and federal leaders are looking for ways to be helpful in this area. Panelists also discussed the importance for flexibility in education funding, both for school choice programs and for education systems generally.

Private school choice programs (including voucher programs, education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships) can be a deeply divisive issue across the political spectrum, but there was broad consensus that public school choice options, including charter schools, can be a beneficial tool in fostering student improvement.

Special thanks to our partners for this event: ACT, Charter Schools USA, ExcelinEd, K12, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Pearson. 

Author profile
Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | mwixom@ecs.org

As a policy analyst, Micah focuses primarily on school choice policy issues. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Micah worked for the Nevada Legislature, the Arizona Office of the Auditor General and as a volunteer coordinator for a public interest law firm. When Micah is not elbow-deep in education policy, she can be found enjoying Colorado’s beautiful outdoors.

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