Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in School Choices
By Steve Looney
The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted and exacerbated education disparities in our state that have stood for far too long. Part of our solution may be fiscal, but another is expanding school choice. This National School Choice Week, let’s listen to the people of New Jersey and raise the conversation about how parents need flexible options for schooling their children. I bet you know someone who really needed that this year.
The coronavirus outbreak has stressed many aspects of our institutions, and particularly our schools. It also has focused many of us on schooling and separated the wheat from the chaff. A variety of schools and forms of schooling, some unexpected, were able to contribute to New Jersey kids’ learning in spite of the obstacles. School choice recognizes the value of a diversity of learning options: Every school that has continued educating students well is a benefit to our state at large, no matter how it’s organized or categorized.
Part of what makes school choice essential to improving equity—in a pandemic and beyond— is the flexibility it brings families. Some New Jersey families live in districts that permit [open enrollment], and they’re able to choose a public school that meets their needs, whether or not it’s in their neighborhood. Other families may prefer charter schools, funded with public dollars, but operated under a charter that gives them more flexibility, and greater accountability to parents. Many charters performed admirably during the shutdown, withhigh attendance rates and personalized instruction and family support. Parents also can choose magnet programs offering focused education in one subject, online schools or homeschooling.
Private schools provide another route for families seeking a quality education. While some large public schools or districts were slowed by size and bureaucracy in adapting to the crisis, many private schools rose to the challenge in New Jersey, going above and beyond on behalf of their students.
In the wake of the crisis, parents are seeking these flexible, student-centered learning environments in unprecedented numbers. Other states have created a new vehicle to bring the benefits of school choice to more families: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). These accounts give families a fixed percentage of per-pupil education spending, and allow them to spend those dollars on the educational options that work best for each student.
ESAs provide the ultimate in education flexibility, allowing for easy customization that meets students’ personalized needs. For instance, when schools shut down as the pandemic hit last spring, families could have used ESA funds to purchase supplemental tutoring, textbooks for parents who took up homeschooling, or virtual classes from experienced online learning providers. Parents also could have used ESA dollars to fund tuition at microschools or learning pods, two popular trends during the pandemic. While wealthy families have always had school choices available to them, ESAs provide access to educational choice for low-income families and families of moderate means.
Critics argue that school choice costs additional taxpayer funds, but the facts suggest the opposite. Recentstudies from other states indicate that school choice has saved taxpayers at least $4.9 billion, or more than $3,100 per enrolled student. ESAs have the potential to save New Jersey taxpayers similar sums—money that could even be reinvested in new ways in education if we chose. One analysis completed in November finds over $950 million of annual savings for New Jersey taxpayers from a well-designed ESA program.
From January 24 to 30, families and educators in New Jersey will celebrate National School Choice Week, a week to raise awareness about all learning options available to families. Schools of choice have helped many families survive stressful school shutdowns, but more access to choice is needed. This past year has been a painful reminder that, while every student deserves a first-class education, they don’t always get it. Investing generously and smartly in education and expanding school choice—this is the way to change that.
Steven M. Looney is a trustee of Excellent Education for Everyone.