Noah Peterson | Is it Time for School Choice?

California has a history of voting down school choice initiatives. Proposition 174 in 1993 and Prop. 38 in 2000 — both forms of school choice voucher programs — failed.

But it might be time to try again; we have more evidence that school choice works for students, especially minorities and children of low socioeconomic status, and increasing popularity among California voters.

To be clear, school vouchers are government “coupons” that low-income families can use to send their children to the school of their choice, private or otherwise. This increases the liberty parents have to send their children to whatever school they like, regardless of their ZIP code or inability to afford it.

There are currently 26 operating voucher programs in 15 states. California should be one of them, particularly if it wants to raise test scores and graduation rates for students and improve the quality of education overall.

First of all, school choice works. The strongest tests available conclude that school choice programs produce significant academic benefits. There have been 16 experimental evaluations — considered by scholars to be the gold standard of research — with 11 finding positive impacts, three finding neutral effects, and only two (both from Louisiana) finding negative effects, per data from The Heritage Foundation. The majority of the evidence is in favor of school choice.

In addition to improving test scores, school choice programs can raise graduation rates and the percentage of people who go on to attend college. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that children of low socioeconomic status demonstrated an increase in secondary school completion rates of 15-20 percent. Similarly, one intensive study from Harvard and the Brookings Institute discovered that a New York City voucher program increased the percentage of African American students who went on to attend college.

School choice vouchers are both an effective and compassionate innovation. One could even call it a social justice policy. It says that no matter what your background, your ethnicity, your parents’ income, you have the opportunity to receive a quality education. And the results speak for themselves.

While voucher programs do produce substantial benefits, they come at a cost. Every dollar invested in a voucher program is a dollar that could be spent on the public education system, where many schools are in need of textbooks, supplies and more teachers.

This is a completely valid critique of school choice programs. But to actually improve the quality of education in all schools, public included, this repercussion has to happen. There must be consequences for the product schools produce: the quality of education.

As it stands now, the incentives in public schools are not consistent with the goal of improving the quality of education. They are insulated from competition and the consequences of underserving their students. For instance, for D.C.’s voucher program to pass, the public schools had to receive additional funding, despite not having to educate voucher students who decided to leave. By protecting the public schools from the consequences of students leaving, they stripped the incentives for improvement. When a principal can lose dozens of students and still receive the same pay and maintain his or her job security, accountability is absent.

In order to motivate public schools to be more efficient in their use of taxpayer dollars and improve the quality of education they are providing students, their funding must be tied to their performance. If the education they give students is superb, they will not lose funding because parents will decide to keep their children in those schools. However, if the quality of education is poor, parents will send their students elsewhere, and the public school will lose money.

A market-based school system that rewards quality education and punishes poor performance will increase the quality of education overall. This is another way in which school choice is fair: Schools are rewarded based on their merit.

School choice initiatives are something both political parties can get behind. In fact, a recent UC Berkeley statewide poll revealed 55 percent of Californians supported school choice — whether it be a voucher program or tax credit — that enabled low-income families to send their children to private or religious schools. And there wasn’t much difference in support between Democrats, Republicans and independents.

School choice voucher programs are a fair and effective way of improving the education system in California. It might be time for another ballot initiative.

Noah Peterson is a Stevenson Ranch resident.