Last week, I published at paper over at the Manhattan Institute co-authored with Nicole Stelle Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame’s law school.
The basic argument is simple. The school choice movement is at an incredible, if perilous, moment. Multiple states across the country have created wide-sweeping education savings account programs and over the course of the next year to 18 months are tasked with implementing them. The history of education policy is littered with examples of promising programs that fall apart on implementation and we really don’t want ESAs to suffer the same fate.
So what can we do to avoid that? Nicole and I offer a lot of recommendations, in five major categories.
First, parents must be informed about their options. This can take the form of handbooks, webinars, or in-person trainings. It can enlist the help of parent navigators, organizations that help link families with schools that have cropped up in choice-rich states already. The key for parents is to have predictability over perfection. If they are enrolling in one of these programs, they know that it isn’t going to get everything right out of the gate, but they do want to be able to plan for their child’s education.
Second, schools and other providers must prepare for, and respond effectively to, the opportunities and challenges provided by ESAs. ESAs present an opportunity, in particular, for Catholic and other faith-based schools whose numbers have been dwindling over the past several decades. Not only can they find more students, but if they innovate by offering hybrid or a la carte options, they can enroll students part-time or in select programs. They do need to stay on guard to ensure that participation in the program does not interfere with their autonomy, and we encourage them to be transparent with parents in what they are offering and in what they are charging, but those are small prices to pay for the incredible opportunity before them.
Third, regulators must thoughtfully and deliberately address the need for effective program regulations. Key terms and decision makers need to be outlined by states after legislation is passed. What do terms like “curriculum” or “instructional technology” mean when they are allowable uses of ESA funds? Who gets to determine that? When are those determinations made and with input from whom? Accountability, both financial and academic, is important, but are somewhat secondary concerns when such basic questions still loom large.
Fourth, program administrators must establish effective operational policies and procedures. Parents need to get onboarded into the program, states need to conduct RFPs to contract with key vendors to provide services, and someone needs to review all of the purchases that families are making. These are all policies and procedures that states need to draft once the regulatory and rulemaking process is completed. They matter a great deal.
Fifth, states and public-interest legal advocates must prepare for legal challenges. This is where Nicole’s expertise particularly shone through! Whether it is minimizing legal risk on the front end in program design and regulation drafting or coping with the inevitable and unavoidable legal challenges that nip at the heels of school choice programs, states can (and have) found ways to navigate litigation to keep programs moving forward.
These are exciting days, but boy there is a lot of work to do!