Commentary

School Choice Movement Must Fight Restrictions on Private Schools

By David F. Salisbury
May 8, 2003

The Colorado legislature recently passed the “Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program.” This makes Colorado the first state to pass a school voucher program since the Supreme Court’s ruling this summer that school vouchers are constitutional. Texas is also set to pass a school voucher bill. Florida and Arizona are likely to extend their tuition tax credit programs and Washington D.C. may get vouchers. Governor Mike Foster in Louisiana has proposed a voucher bill for that state.

As those measures make their way through the state legislatures, the school choice community needs to stress the importance of avoiding new regulations on private schools. If they don’t, those new rules could destroy the very basis for school choice.

The Colorado bill, for example, requires that participating private schools allow the school district to administer state tests to the voucher children enrolled at those schools. Foster’s bill in Louisiana would require that participating private schools test all their students using the state’s standardized testing program. The Texas bill would require participating private schools to administer “comparable assessment instruments approved by the commissioner.”

Requiring private schools to give state-selected achievement tests would have harmful effects on the participating private schools. Some private schools would have to give up the curriculum they have designed for their own students and teach the state-sanctioned curriculum instead. That would kill the diversity and vitality of the private schools. Many state tests emphasize fuzzy math over traditional math, and stress the use of ‘culturally diverse texts’ over traditional classical literature, a staple of many effective private schools.

Private schools have legitimate reasons for selecting one type of test over another. Some prefer the Iowa Test of Basic Skills because they think it tests for a more traditional coverage of the curriculum — others prefer the Stanford-9 or the CAT. Some private schools shun standardized tests altogether, choosing to rely instead on more holistic measures of student progress. The fact that most private schools don’t want to administer state tests doesn’t mean that they are not serious academic institutions with rigorous standards of excellence. It simply means that their curriculum and standards are different than those of government schools. Most state standards have no empirical basis. Rather, state standards and tests are typically an awkward compromise between disparate factions of the professional education community, many of which are influenced by fads and politically correct thinking.

As currently written, the Texas bill would require participating private schools to accept any student who wishes to pay with a voucher “unless the student has been expelled from public school or has a criminal record.” Thus, schools would be prohibited from considering religious background or academic achievement as criteria for admission.

Rules requiring private schools to accept all applicants would severely jeopardize the ability of private schools to specialize by focusing on specific types of students. Religious schools would not be allowed to require a ‘statement of faith’ or other demonstration of support for the mission of the school as a basis for admission. Presumably, private schools that specialize in serving children with disabilities would be required to accept non-disabled children as well. Specialization is a requirement for quality. Consumers have diverse preferences and producers have different skills, talents, and interests. The purpose of school choice is to give parents choices among schools of differing specializations, ideologies, and practices. It defeats that purpose to make private schools into one-size-fits-all carbon copies of public schools.

The Texas bill would also mandate tuition caps that prevent families from using vouchers at private schools that charge more than the voucher amount. Such price controls would drive out innovation and prevent families that want to purchase additional education services for their child from doing so. As in all economic sectors, wealthy people provide the initial capital to finance experimentation and innovation. Those innovations that are found to be most useful soon get expanded. The price of the new innovation comes down, and the product is made available to everyone at less cost.

The same thing would happen in education. A school choice program that prohibits families from adding onto their tuition produces a market that is less attractive to new capital and new entry than a program where entrepreneurs can attract consumers from all income levels. Without the interest and investment of wealthy and middle-income families, a real educational revolution likely won’t happen.

Several proposed bills call for local school boards in participating districts to evaluate the program each year. This is like asking KMart to evaluate Walmart. The parents themselves will provide plenty of accountability for private schools and not all parents have to be astute consumers of educational services. Private schools, like other businesses, respond to even small changes in market share. So, it only takes a few critical customers to effect the practices of a school that doesn’t want to lose clients.

The school choice community needs to do a better job of selling the idea that private schools are already more accountable than public schools, precisely because they are accountable directly to the consumers. As we encourage policy-makers to enact school choice policies, we should simultaneously oppose any attempts by state legislatures to impose unnecessary and harmful regulations on private schools.

There are a number of signs that private schools will not participate in school choice programs if those programs require that they give up their curriculum, religious environment, or their ability to admit students based on the school’s unique specialization or mission. Imposing state standards or admission policies on private schools would create an institutional rigidity and uniformity that would limit the diversity of standards, school practices and educational philosophies that exist in the private school market.

We do not want school choice legislation to impose public school type regulations on private schools. Rather, we should work to end discrimination against parents who choose private schools, while ensuring that those schools remain truly private and independent. The school choice movement is at a crossroads. Those school choice bills making their way through state legislatures today will become the models for school choice programs tomorrow. The success of school choice will depend largely on how effective we are in opposing increased regulation of private schools.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.