Mitt Romney’s plan to voucherize (though he doesn’t call it that) Title I and IDEA has considerable merit – but it’s not the only way the federal government could foster school choice and it might not even be the best way.
It’s not a new idea, either. I recall working with Bill Bennett on such a plan – which Ronald Reagan then proposed to a heedless Congress – a quarter century ago.
It had merit then and has even more today. As America nears the half-century mark with Title I, we can fairly conclude that pumping all this money into districts to boost the budgets of schools serving disadvantaged kids hasn’t done those kids much good, though it has surely been welcomed by revenue-hungry districts (and states). Evaluation after evaluation of Title I has shown that iconic program to have little or no positive impact, and everybody knows that the No Child Left Behind edition of Title I hasn’t done much good either. It has, however, yielded an enormous number of schools that we now know, without doubt, are doing a miserable job, particularly with disadvantaged kids, but we’re having a dreadful time “turning around” those schools. One may fairly conclude that Title I in its present form isn’t working and probably cannot.
So why not try strapping the money to the backs of needy kids and letting them take it to the schools of their choice? This would help them escape from dreadful schools. It would make them more “affordable” for the schools they move into. It would remove one of the main barriers (the non-portability of federal dollars) that discourages states and districts from moving toward “weighted student funding” with their own money. And it would certainly go a long way to change the balance of power in American education from producers to consumers.
Having said that, a word of caution is needed. Few federal education initiatives work nearly as well as intended. (NCLB is again a large, recent, case in point.) Legitimate questions persist about what, exactly, is the federal role in the K-12 sphere, particularly in reforming it. A good case can be made for Washington to generate sound data, safeguard civil rights, support research, and assist with the costs of educating high-risk kids – but setting the ground rules for schools and operating the system is really the job of states. Moreover, the federal share of the school dollar – a dime – isn’t big enough to yield much leverage over how the system works. That’s why the Romney plan is apt to do some good in states (and districts) that want to extend more school choices to their students – the federal dime can join the state/local 90 cents in the kid’s backpack – but won’t make much difference in places that aren’t willing to put their own resources into this kind of reform.
Similar caveats must be attached to other possible methods by which Uncle Sam could try to foster school choice. Which isn’t to say such possibilities don’t exist. Indeed, I can think of four more opportunities.