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School choice could expand opportunity for poorest students

By Devin Keehner
On February 3, 2014

It's not the rich or even the middle class that our current education system is failing. Education is a major, if not primary, driver of inequality of opportunity. The question is how to fix the education system. Is the answer more standardized tests? Could it be that our education system is underfunded? Surely, the United States education system lacks neither of those things. Instead, education must be opened up to the same free market principles that have made this country great.
Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander introduced an education proposal that would do just that. His plan would free up $21 billion for 11 million children from low income families. States would be allowed to opt in to the program. In these states existing federal dollars would be redirected towards children in the form of vouchers. These reforms can then be expanded upon by state voucher programs - something a third of all states have already done.
This is beneficial because voucher systems and charter schools open up educational institutions to market forces. Currently, if a school is failing, low income families are trapped. However, if federal and state dollars are made to be portable, then schools will no longer be able to take their enrollment for granted, and families will be able to choose a new school without moving. Schools that provide a good service will benefit while schools that do not will have no choice but to improve.
This shouldn't be controversial. Even Sweden - hardly a conservative stronghold - has embraced the idea of competition through voucher programs, installing their own version of the program in 1992.
Critics argue that Sweden's voucher system has been ineffective. One such critic is Professor Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Levin surmises that Sweden's decreased test scores and increased economic inequality are in part due to school choice. However, what the professor failed to take into account was the influx in asylum seekers from Eastern Europe and Iraq that has occurred over the same time period. According to Reuters roughly 15 percent of the Swedish population is foreign born. This would inevitably drag down test scores and increase inequality, because these immigrants will often face language barriers and decreased economic opportunity.
What is most promising about voucher programs is that public schools are improved by the competition as well. The Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy (IFAU), a research group operating under the Swedish Ministry of Employment, found that the program led not only to higher test scores, but also a higher probability of attending college in districts with high percentages of voucher usage. Furthermore, the study stated that, "these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students." This means school choice makes public schools better.
In this respect Alexander's bill is likely superior to Sweden's. Unlike Sweden, which extends school choice to everyone, Lamar's proposal is targeted towards those who need choices most. Upper class families can already afford private schools while middle class families will choose to live in districts with good schools. It only seems fair to try to boost competition for those who are stuck in failing schools before extending school choice to everyone.
This is vital to the political success of such a proposal. The problem many conservative proposals face is that they cause improvement across the board. From a purely utilitarian standpoint this a good thing, but it represents a political problem. For example, if you double real incomes across the board everyone is better off. However, you have also increased income inequality. This is a fact that is shamelessly exploited by liberal politicians. Making more limited proposals like Alexander's politically powerful.
Alexander's proposal is a serious solution to a serious problem. It should lead to a bipartisan proposal that can satisfy both sides of the aisle.  

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