COLUMBIA — August has arrived and that means many families will begin their back-to-school shopping. Typically, this means buying the right folders, the best backpack and the coolest clothes. But in many places, school shopping is taking on a whole new meaning.
For a growing number of families across the country, school shopping means having the freedom to choose one school over another. It means looking at different schools and selecting the one that is the best fit for the child.
Increasingly, charter schools, voucher programs and tuition tax credit scholarships are making it possible for families to have a choice in where to send their children to school. Nationwide in 2011, approximately 2 million students attended a school of choice through a national- or state-run program. According to the Center for Education Reform, the number of students attending a choice school was up more than 400,000 from the previous year. The large increase in school-choice programs led the Wall Street Journal to call 2011 the “year of school choice.” Still, less than 4 percent of all students in the United States were able to utilize a school-choice program.
Missourians currently do not have access to private schools via a voucher or tuition tax credit scholarship program; until recently, charter schools were restricted to Saint Louis and Kansas City. Thus, choice was limited to few students, with about half of a percent attending a charter school, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Rigorous evaluations have found positive benefits in terms of academic achievement and graduation rates from choice schools. These programs also enable parents to shift from recipients of educational services to consumers of those services because they can shop for their child’s school at a host of educational providers. Becoming a responsible shopper of schools may not be an easy transition for some families, a fact brought to light with the closing of the Imagine Charter School network. For some, the closing of the Imagine schools has tarnished the reputation of school choice. Indeed, the low performance and poor management of the Imagine schools was unfortunate, especially because more than 1,000 students will be displaced as a result of the closure. It is more unfortunate, however, that thousands of other students across the state are trapped without options in failing schools that will never close.
The failure of Imagine is not a failure of school choice. Rather, what happened with Imagine illustrates the importance of making informed decisions. It could easily be argued that finding the right school is every bit as difficult as buying a home or a new car. These types of decisions require planning and research, where consumers must judge between many options. In their chapter of The Demand Side of Education, school choice experts Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf note the importance of being wise consumers when choosing a school. Although the transition may be difficult at first, even the most disadvantaged parents can adapt into savvy shoppers. Stewart and Wolf note: “… The added responsibility of choosing a child’s school from among many distinct options appears to inspire some parents to become more active consumers and involved citizens.”
Missourians should have the ability to enter the education market to choose the best school for their child from a number of high-quality schools. As Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “We allow the market, consumer choice and competition to work in nearly every industry except the one that matters most: education.” If charter schools were expanded throughout the state and students were able to use a voucher to attend the private school of their choice, families in Missouri would finally be able to enter the market to do some real school shopping.
James V. Shuls is an education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.