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Vouchers and Charters and Magnets, Oh My! Vouchers and Charters and Magnets, Oh My!

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Vouchers and Charters and Magnets, Oh My!


Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (L) with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) during a hearing on Capitol Hill Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In case it escaped anyone's notice, last week was National School Choice Week, as decreed by an organization of the same name and recognized by several governors and mayors. Of course, one's definition of "school choice" depends entirely on one's broader political views. Crudely speaking, Republicans want school vouchers for private and parochial schools. Democrats oppose vouchers for private schools, but they like charter schools. And then there are the magnet schools, God bless them, who continue to remind policymakers that they, too, can be part of the school choice movement even if no one remembers that they are there.

There were lots of events that celebrated this moving target of "school choice." Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced two separate bills on school vouchers—one to allow states to create a $2,100 "scholarship" for low-income children to go to any public or private school and another to increase school portability for children with disabilities. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor visited a charter school in Washington, D.C., continuing his ongoing crusade on school choice.


The Education Department even got in on the game, issuing new guidelines on charter schools, saying that they can use weighted lotteries to favor disadvantaged students. (Hint: That nugget is in the document that is the third bullet point down on the page.) A readable explanation of the guidance is here.

The Education Department's action on weighted lotteries prompted cheers from some conservative education advocates—among them Fordham Institute's Michael Petrilli, who comments on this blog—and jeers from others, including Petrilli's boss, Checker Finn, another of my commentators. (Update: See Finn's comments below expounding on his views.)

In short, good times were had by all. Now the question remains, what actually can happen? It seems as though some aspects of "enrollment portability" (my term) are resonating with everyone. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said last week that he has "long been a fan of public school choice," particularly magnet schools, but he cannot sanction vouchers "that dilute resources to public schools."


The very term "school choice" has divisive connotations. Republicans want to own it as a campaign issue, knowing that Democrats draw the line at vouchers for private schools and can't be as effusive on the topic. The battle for the bumper sticker quote may be as real as the actual questions on the issue.

Regardless of how simple the talking points get, the reality is that increasing schooling options for families is really hard. Loss of dollars in struggling schools only makes it harder for them to succeed, while it's not always clear that the money going to another school is making a difference or that the child's education is any better there. As Harkin put it, "Title I may be old, but it's still necessary."

Yes, there are probably ways to expand enrollment options, but the answers are only going to come with trial and error. There may be some communities that are ready to try bold experiments with new models, like New Orleans. But others may feel that the gamble isn't worth it. Expect the regional differences to grow over the next several years. National policy, however, won't change.

For our insiders: What lessons have we learned from communities that have experimented with enrollment portability? Can their best practices work in other regions? What can be accomplished solely within the school models that Republicans and Democrats agree on? Why are vouchers a controversial idea? Can enrollment options be expanded within the constructs of Title I? Does the entire public school system need to be turned on its head to give families more options?


(Note: This blog is a moderated discussion on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular contributor.)

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