Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Want more school choices? Give more students choice

We’re about to get a much clearer look at the biggest opportunity left in Nathan Deal’s time as governor.

Deal appointees soon will begin approving ideas for lifting Georgia’s public schools out of 20th century structures for receiving state funding, paying (future) teachers, educating preschoolers and moving students through the system. Taken together, and once they’ve gone through the legislative process, these ideas could transform our schools for the better.

Deal also charged members of his Education Reform Commission with expanding school choice options, particularly for children from low-income families. But if that element of the plan is to reach its maximum potential, the vision needs to be broader.

Good choice measures will spur creativity by educators. But they also need to prompt creation by educators — as in new options that don’t exist today. That’s how we’ll get real competition and the improvements in quality that come with it. To get there, we need choice to be as universal, and parent-driven, as possible.

To understand why, consider this explanation from Jay Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The following passages from a recent blog entry by Greene address the notion that new school options should be heavily regulated, including rules about student family income.

“The only equity of access that is promoted by the heavy-regulation approach is that everyone is equally unable to access schools that refuse to participate in the programs,” Greene writes. “In their desire to protect disadvantaged students, the backers of this heavy-regulation approach have ironically done serious harm to these students by driving away most of the supply. And the minority of private schools that are willing to participate are likely to include many of the lower-quality schools.

“Who,” he continues, “is most likely to be willing to abandon control over their admissions, accept tiny voucher amounts as payment in full for serving the lowest-achieving students, and is willing to take the state achievement tests? Financially desperate private schools with a lot of empty seats are likely to be first in line to accept these terms. High-quality private schools may at most make a token number of seats available. Rather than protecting access and ensuring quality, heavy regulation is having the opposite effect.”

Transparency, so that parents know how their students are performing relative to others, is one thing. Adjusting the money available based on student need could also work. But heavy regulation is wrong-headed for another reason that ought to be obvious.

“The whole problem with the high-regulation approach is that it falsely believes regulators can define, identify and require good outcomes,” Greene writes. “If that were in fact possible, we would have already solved the problem, and we could have done so without any school choice.”

The mindset that we can only “afford” school choice for a few assumes education funding belongs to public schools. Take the approach that education funding exists to provide the best education possible for each child, and things look a lot different.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.