the year of school choice

A colleague points out that new state laws that allow parents to use public money to purchase education may represent the biggest US policy trend of 2023–basically, since the Republicans won the US House and stopped further federal progressive legislation. As Libby Stanford wrote in EdWeek last June,

So far this year, lawmakers in 14 states have passed bills establishing school choice programs or expanding existing ones, and lawmakers in 42 states have introduced such bills … Six of the 14 states—Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah—have passed school choice policies making programs universal or near-universal over the next three years. They join Arizona and West Virginia, which in recent years either established or expanded education savings accounts and made them available to virtually all students. That brings the total number of states where virtually all students will be able to use public funds for private schools to eight.

I hold some principled skepticism about school choice, yet I believe it is a valid policy debate–in fact, I have sometimes chosen it as the leading topic in my undergraduate course on public policy, because there are arguments on both (or many) sides.

It’s mainly in the USA that school choice is seen as a conservative cause; many social democracies allow parents to choose among publicly funded and licensed schools. And there have been progressive proponents of school choice in America.

On a political level, the passage of these new state laws is interesting for several reasons.

First, it is happening without a great deal of national attention, which I suspect reflects the national media’s basic lack of interest in state policies, especially in the South.

Second, it challenges the premise (which, I admit, I sometimes share) that the modern conservative movement has run out of policy ideas and is obsessed with performative politics–denouncing “woke” companies and universities without actually passing laws. A wave of school-choice bills reflects a policy agenda.

Third, it challenges the premise that today’s GOP is shifting from quasi-libertarian to quasi-authoritarian. A law that enforces particular ways of addressing contested social issues in public schools verges on authoritarian. But a law that allows parents to opt out of public schools is libertarian–for better or worse.

(However, many parents may seek schools that have authoritarian climates for their own students, somewhat like private homeowners’ associations that enact meticulous rules to control their own residents’ behavior.)