Author(s): Greg Forster, Ph.D., James L. Woodworth, M.Ed.
The recent explosion of educational innovation has focused primarily on creating wholly new models of what a school can be. From KIPP to Carpe Diem, education is entering a revolutionary period driven by the reinvention of the entire school rather than by gradual programmatic reforms. Although some of these new models have been more successful than others, and the level of success for any given new model can be debated, there is a growing consensus that these new school models collectively represent a dramatic challenge to the status quo in education.
These “greenfield school models” do not just challenge our assumptions about schooling. They also challenge the assumption that one school model can provide the right education for every child. The public mind has been opened to the potential of educational options as never before.
The nation faces two crucial challenges as we enter this new period. Only a tiny fraction of the promise and potential of greenfield school models has been tapped so far. How can we create far more of these models, with greater variation and more institutional support for innovation? And how is it possible for greenfield school models to create improvement in the vast majority of schools, the “un-reinvented” regular public schools, given that even gradual attempts at programmatic reform within those schools have been ineffective over the past 50 years?
Universal school choice has great potential to meet both of these challenges. Although the private school sector provides structures that should be inviting to entrepreneurs, currently they do not find the private school sector attractive. The “tuition barrier” locks out institutional change; private schools can’t reach out to a large enough base of families seeking different learning environments, because they must charge tuition. By lowering the tuition barrier and allowing private schools to serve new populations, universal choice would provide educational entrepreneurs with dramatically more freedom and support than they currently enjoy even in charter schools. Entrepreneurs would be more free to innovate beyond the confines of the “default” public school model, giving them the ability to truly reinvent the school.
Moreover, universal choice is the only way to create an institutional context in which regular public schools will innovate and improve in response to greenfield school models. Currently, their institutional culture consistently experiences reform efforts as threatening and illegitimate. Because public schools have a captive client base, institutions never see the need for change as urgent; thus, they respond to pressure for change in counterproductive ways. By putting parents back in charge of education, universal school choice would focus the urgency in schools needing change, facilitating the emergence of an institutional culture that would experience reform as legitimate, necessary, and empowering. Enacting a universal choice policy would not by itself create all the necessary changes, but enacting universal choice is a necessary precondition of change.
A large body of high-quality research consistently establishes that school choice has a positive impact on both the students who use it and students in nearby public schools. However, in most cases the size of this impact is moderate.
Existing school choice programs are a far cry from universal choice. They are small, underfunded, and overregulated. The limited size and scope of existing programs make it unreasonable to expect they will drive miraculous changes. It is an open question whether these existing programs provide any support for educational entrepreneurs or greenfield school models.
This study uses descriptive data from the U.S. Department of Education to examine the composition of the private school sector in localities with sizeable school choice programs. If existing school choice programs are attracting educational entrepreneurs and unlocking the potential of new school models, we should expect to see significant changes in the sector’s composition. While the available data do not allow us to examine every aspect of schooling, the founding of new school models ought to produce visible changes in school types, school sizes, and other visible metrics.
However, the data examined here provide little evidence that existing school choice programs are transforming the structure of private schools. In its current form, school choice does not appear to be having an impact that is sufficiently large enough to produce visible transformation of the private school sector. Existing choice programs transfer students from marginally less effective public schools to marginally more effective private schools, but they do not seem to drive more ambitious school reforms.
It appears that universal choice programs are needed before an alliance between school choice and the greenfield school revolution can emerge.