Defining School Choice

What exactly is school choice?

School Choice is a term used extensively in political, education policy, and advocate circles, but what does it mean?

In the strictest sense it refers to the various educational institutions available to families, namely public, charter, private and religious schools. This is the most widely accepted definition across the country. Sometimes homeschooling is included in this mix, but not always. New Hampshire’s Department of Education recognizes home education as a way to satisfy compulsory attendance, so it makes sense to include homeschooling in our definition.

Those of us within the school choice community already recognize there is fluidity among these choices. A student may be a homeschooler for a few years then switch to a charter or private school at some later time. Even within families, children can be enrolled in different settings to put together a better “fit” education for each one. It is not unusual for kids in a homeschool family to have some enrolled in a class or two at their local public school while another takes online classes, and yet another takes private lessons for something else. NH public school students may also take online classes, sometimes through dual enrollment or the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School to fulfill a portion of their course load. School choice is a range of choices that may change over time, or comprise a mix of options to find a better “fit.”

Is school choice strictly defined by the facility where education takes place, or is there more to it? What about funding mechanisms that support access to educational options?

Tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are usually included in school choice because they expand access for families of low to moderate means. Without these funding tools a significant percentage of students do not have choice, otherwise limiting options to the wealthy. New Hampshire is also the only state that includes homeschoolers in a tax-credit scholarship program; therefore it makes sense to include these funding tools within the school choice framework.

Who has the authority to expand or diminish these choices? Is it limited to whatever choices the government deems acceptable?

Government agencies at the federal, state, and sometimes the local level are the bodies responsible for creating and regulating these options. There is usually a legislative or approval process so they are powerful entities in creating the rules by which these choice options must operate. Political control has a great impact on school choice.

What if a state Board of Education put a moratorium on charter school approvals? The NH BOE did this a few years ago, putting increased strain on those trying to operate in the state to meet enrollment demand as it kept others from opening. It effectively put a strangle-hold on charter schools across the state. The NH BOE also has the authority to approve or deny proposed charter schools, so they decide who has access to educational options.

Can local school boards give parents an array of options to select a school that better meets their child’s needs? That is the fundamental premise of the legal battle between Croydon and the state DOE and Attorney General, as well as HB 1637 (2016), often called the Croydon bill, which was vetoed by Governor Hassan. Essentially, the Croydon issue is about town tuitioning. This was reinforced in a white paper issued by the Granite Institute this summer which underscores that districts and towns should decide how to provide an education to their students. In this way, even laws governing district co-op agreements and withdrawals could also fall under this definition. Look for this issue to return in the 2017 legislative session.

Generally it is accepted within school choice circles that these choices should be made by those closest to the student — the parents and local school boards, not the state, and not the federal government. If school choice does not include monitoring these agencies, then families should quietly accept whatever range of choices the feds and states choose to give them. In these ways, who makes the choices and getting that decision as close to the student as possible is part of the school choice discussion.

Is Common Core an aspect of school choice?

More than three years ago Jason Bedrick with the Cato Institute said Common Core is a major impediment to furthering educational options. For that reason, opposing Common Core and the aligned testing, is beneficial to the school choice movement.

Rather than complement school choice, Common Core undermines it. To address the diverse needs of diverse children, we should be supporting an education system that provides a truly diverse array of options and entrusting parents to decide which option best meets the individual needs of their children. In exerting tremendous pressure on private schools to conform, Common Core would reduce the number and diversity of those options.

At a bill hearing before the Ohio State Legislature, Jason Bedrick also made these remarks:

In the education policy world today, there are two major ideas of reform. One favors greater centralization, standardization, and uniformity. The other favors greater decentralization, innovation, and diversity. The former, embodied by Common Core, empowers unelected bureaucrats and treats all children as essentially the same. The latter, embodied by Ohio’s school choice programs, empowers parents to choose the education provider that best meets the individual needs of their individual children… Though some want to combine these two ideas, they are incompatible.

EdChoice (previously called the Friedman Foundation) said Common Core inhibits the innovation and diversity that is critical to school choice. They also said that competition and parents were better at driving improvements than government. As a top-down reform effort, Common Core is harmful to school choice.

Given that Common Core has the potential for wide-sweeping harm to all educational options, resisting it and the aligned testing, and informing families of the danger Common Core poses are critical parts of protecting school choice.

Does accountability or testing have a part in school choice?

Accountability mechanisms are also appropriate to the school choice dialog. Critics often claim that private schools and homeschoolers don’t provide an “adequate education” because they are not required to participate in statewide assessments. Performance of our public schools also becomes relevant when school choice opponents criticize options as not academically serving students. This was a big part of the Attorney General’s argument against Croydon in their lawsuit. It is also an issue the NH DOE occasionally resurrects when trying to implement more homeschool restrictions.

What if federal authorities require homeschoolers to take the same statewide tests as public school students? This isn’t a wild concept as the US DOE Secretary, John King, recently remarked that “students who are homeschooled are not getting kind of the rapid instructional experience they would get in school’—unless parents are “very intentional about it”.

Although New Hampshire’s homeschool laws are not onerous, home ed students are required to have a year-end assessment and parents may decide what type is used.

Accountability is also directly relevant because it gets to the market-forces of school choice – that parents decide if schools successfully meet their students’ needs. These are widely discussed by school choice powerhouses like the Cato Institute and EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation).

Accountability is also a key discussion point regarding charter schools. They go head-to-head in comparisons  with their public school counterparts, and use various benchmarks to prove their value in the educational options universe. Jay P. Greene, a renowned school choice writer, often covers these issues.

Accountability to parents – not the state – is a key component of school choice.

Does school choice have applications within the public school system?

Certainly! Why should choice end at the schoolhouse doors?

A few years ago New Hampshire passed a law that empowers public school parents to chose alternatives to controversial curriculum for their children as provided in RSA 186:11, IX-c . It has been successfully applied for students to use different materials in English and Social Studies classes, and even replace the entire math curriculum.

Even youth employment approvals may be relevant to school choice issues. Prior to August 2016 the NH youth employment law was an unfair burden to all non-public school students. Increasingly work experience may receive academic credit through Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) and competency-based education. This can have a direct bearing on students’ educational experiences.

Non-academic surveys and student privacy become relevant to the discussion because they disproportionately impact families of limited means who are trapped in their zip-code assigned schools.

While they may initially seem unrelated to school choice, these issues bring decisions closer to students to provide a better “fit”‘ education, even within the public school system. Until all students have access to the schools of their choice – whether it is accomplished through greater availability of charter schools or more tax-credit scholarship funding or ESAs or any other option – these issues are relevant to our discussion.

What if school choice is thought of as educational choice?

That little word change is key because it recognizes choice for the entire education, not just the facility, or how students afford tuition, or who makes the decisions. It means empowering students and parents with a full range of options — directing the educational path, making decisions within each setting, not just accepting the default settings. It is a fuller view of what comprises education and what fits each person.

If the goal is expanding educational options and bringing choices closer to students, then a broader definition of school choice is necessary.