The battle is over, and school choice won
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The controversy surrounding U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought into stark relief the battle lines in the debate over educational choice in America. Opponents of educational freedom continue to assert that choice is risky, unproven, and dangerous to public education systems. Broad educational options, they say, must be stopped or rolled back. These opponents seem woefully unaware that they are fighting a battle they’ve already lost.

The current state of educational choice in America makes clear that while bitter skirmishes continue, the war for educational choice—public and private—is over. Choice won.


Teachers unions and other anti-reform organizations and individuals have long sought to frame private school choice programs as new or untested. They are not. In fact, private school choice programs have existed in some form in the United States for nearly 150 years; the first such program was adopted by Vermont in 1869. Since then, variations of these programs have spread across the United States in successive waves of parental empowerment, with most growth occurring over the past quarter century.



More than a dozen states now have some type of private school voucher program, and 17 states have adopted scholarship tax credit programs that rely upon private philanthropy to fund K-12 scholarships. These scholarship programs, pioneered two decades ago in Arizona, now provide more than a quarter of a million scholarships nationwide. Meanwhile, five states have taken the next step in educational choice by adopting education savings account programs that allow parents to use funds to cover a wider variety of educational expenses. 

Though exact program counts vary, parents in roughly half the states in America and Washington, D.C., now have access to private school choice. Far from being extreme or extraordinary, these programs are not even sexy or exciting anymore. Rather, their presence in the American education landscape is swiftly becoming the norm. As parental demand grows for more educational options and opportunities, states like Colorado that lack private school choice programs are not bravely resisting experimental new policies. They are falling behind the curve of educational progress. 

Much has been made of recent research finding negative effects in voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio. Yet few opponents have acknowledged that some of these findings come with significant caveats, or that misguided attempts to ensure quality using heavy-handed regulation may have been responsible for some negative results. Similarly, opponents fail to note that the bulk of the highest-quality empirical research still indicates that private school choice produces positive results for participating students generally or as members of specific subgroups. 

Prophesies about the destruction of public education at the hands of parents seeking the best educational opportunities for their children have also fallen flat. Research strongly indicates that private school choice programs have a positive effect on public school systems. According one literature review by Ed Choice, 31 of 33 studies on the impacts of private school choice on public schools found positive results. 

Rapid growth in educational choice has not been limited to private school choice programs. Access to public charter schools and other types of non-private choice has also expanded dramatically. Only a tiny handful of states do not have interdistrict open enrollment, intradistrict open enrollment, or both. Public charter schools—long a primary focus of choice opponents’ wrath—have roughly doubled their enrollment since 2007-08 and now serve more than 2.5 million students in more than 6,500 schools nationwide. 

In my home state of Colorado, a recent government study found that while opportunities for improvement exist, “charter schools continue to generally outperform non-charter schools, overall and with educationally disadvantaged subgroups.” These schools tend to do particularly well in urban environments.  A national 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in urban charter schools receive “the equivalent of roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.” 

The current generation of American parents—a generation of which I am a part—exist in an educational reality fundamentally different than any other period in American history, a reality in which broad educational choice is the rule and narrowly defined or prescribed options are the exception. And if the rapid growth of educational options is any indication, demand for choice is not decreasing.

Choice opponents’ protestations, sweeping statements, and heated rhetoric may serve well as a temporary balm for the fact that their rigid vision of education is rapidly fading into the mists of history, but they ultimately cannot slow the inexorable march of educational progress. There are tides, and there are sand castles. In the realm of educational choice, it is clear which side is which.

Ross Izard (@RossIzard) is the senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered in Denver, Colorado.

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