Adam Crain

Uncle Sam’s role in private school choice

January 16, 2017

Adam Crain

Next week is National School Choice Week. In the Palmetto State and across the nation, school choice advocates – parents, students, educators and lawmakers – are making a stand for the right of parents to choose the best education opportunity for their children.

In Washington, Betsy DeVos, a long time school choice advocate and President-elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, faces her senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday. With the school choice movement growing at the state level and with a known ally on the federal level, what can we hope for from Uncle Sam? Can he be helpful at all?

The answer is yes, although your knee-jerk reaction may have been a loud NO! The U.S Department of Education can be helpful in respecting the important role played by private school choice and promoting flexibility as individual states craft their own way forward.

In his recent publication, How Federal Support Could Boost Private School Choice Programs, American Enterprise Institute’s Andy Smarick urges school choice advocates to learn from the charter school movement, which 20 years ago, was in the same stage of development that the private school choice movement finds itself in now – young, only existing in a few states and facing skepticism from the political elites and educrats in Washington.

After explaining the lessons learned from the charter movement, Mr. Smarick outlines a way forward for the federal government to play a supporting role as states expand their private school choice endeavors.

  • He advocates for President Trump’s Department of Education to set up a “Diversity and Choice Incentive Demonstration program” that uses the following guidelines in their approach to expanding private choice:
    Washington should respect that these [private school choice] laws seek to expand and diversify options…The federal government should not try to fundamentally changes these laws, accomplish particular federal policy priorities…or attempt to privilege or disadvantage certain types of schools.
  • Federal investment should primarily comprise short-term grants to help the startup and early operations of a diverse array of promising programs.
  • A portion of these federal funds should support state efforts to design and implement various accountability strategies for schools participating in the program.

Under the new program, grants would be awarded competitively to state level education agencies that would then take the money and facilitate more school choice.

Involving Uncle Sam in what should primarily remain a state-based initiative smacks of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But with the proper leadership from Betsy DeVos and armed with lessons of the battle for charter schools, Mr. Smarick’s ideas provide interesting food for thought…and show just how much education opportunity could potentially be on the table for students who need it most.