Not Just Where, But When

Not Just Where, But When

By Sara Mead | Opinion Contributor


School choice advocates are chomping at the bit for an expansion of educational options under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and a Republican Congress. With Republican governors and legislative control in a majority of states, we’re likely to see an expansion of charter, voucher and tax credit choice programs at the state level.

But among the variety of educational choice proposals on the table, there’s one possibility that’s strikingly absent: For all the talk about giving parents greater choice of where their children go to school, there’s almost no discussion of when.

Let me explain. At each level of our education system, parents have a variety of choices: In early childhood, where most families pay for services out of pocket, families choose from a variety of options, including home-based care, for-profit, non-profit or faith-based child care centers, and nursery or preschools. For families who do receive public assistance, the bulk of child care funding is allocated to vouchers that families can use for a program of their choice (if they can afford it). Some, though not all, public pre-K programs also provide families with choices.

At the elementary and secondary level, choice has expanded dramatically in the past quarter century, through the growth of charter schools, magnet schools, district-operated choice programs and, in a growing number of states, voucher and tax credit programs. All told, 42.6 percent of K-12 students attend schools that their parents chose, either by moving, enrolling them in charter or other public school of choice, or attending a private or homeschool.

In postsecondary education, choice again rules the day, with Pell grants and federal student loans deliberately designed to allow students to use them at the program of their choice.

All of these different choice regimes have strengths and weaknesses, and none of these choice models is perfect. In fact, I have grave concerns with several of them. Yet one thing is common across all of them: While families may have choice among education providers within each level of education, we provide parents with very little opportunity to choose how public resources are allocated to their children across levels of schooling. Parents, for example, may choose among their neighborhood school, a district school of choice, and a charter for third grade. But they can’t choose to transfer resources that would have been spent on third grade to other years of their children’s learning.

Educational savings account plans in a few states do allow families to spend less than the state would otherwise spend on their education, and to put the difference in college savings accounts. But to use these programs, families must withdraw from the public school system entirely. And most programs are too new or have too little publicly reported data for us to know their impacts on child outcomes or the extent to which families actually use them to reallocate resources across time, rather than place, of children’s learning.

Moreover, because families can’t access educational savings accounts until their children reach the age of compulsory attendance, they don’t allow families to shift educational resources to the early years of children’s lives, where public policies currently spend the least.

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