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Power to the States, Choice to Students, Paper Argues

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A new paper argues in favor of "fiscal federalism," a world in which the federal government would encourage and incentivize school choice in states and districts, while scaling back Washington's role in education in many other areas.

The paper, titled "Let the Dollars Follow the Child" and published in Education Next, represents the views of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution, which by its description advocates for choice, accountability, and transparency in schools. It's written by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

As it now stands, federal policymakers seem to be focused on pursuing one of two options, Whitehurst explains: 1) continuing to promote "top-down accountability," in the style of No Child Left Behind; or 2) devolving much more power to states and districts, which in the task force's view would amount to returning to the "status quo of the mid-1990s."

The alternative proposed by the task force envisions using the power of the federal government strategically to promote and encourage choice—and to fulfill other duties, such as ensuring the provision of services and funding to the neediest populations, enforcing civil rights laws, and delivering high-quality information about student performance and other areas.

States should be allowed to opt out of No Child Left Behind, Head Start, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in exchange for creating marketplaces of "informed choice and competition," the paper argues, as long as they provided the above-mentioned protections. Not all states would want to head down this path, and they wouldn't be requred to do so; they could stick with the current approach provided by those laws, Whitehurst says. But states would ultimately decide which route they wanted to pursue, and the option that proved most effective, and the most popular among the public, would prevail, state-by-state, he predicts.

The federal government's potential to promote effective school choice is described this way:

"The simple feature of eliminating a default school assignment by the school district—thus requiring every parent to engage in school choice—eliminates socioeconomic differences in the likelihood that parents will shop for schools. Further, if parents could exercise school choice through Web-based portals that highlight the important variables of school performance, socioeconomic differences in knowledge could be muted. Here, again, the federal government has a role to play, for example, by funding open competitions for designers and implementers of school-choice portals.


Market-based competition cannot prevail in public education unless the consumers of public education can choose where to be schooled. We propose that as a condition of the receipt of federal funds to support the education of individual students, schools be required to participate in an open-enrollment process conducted by a state-sanctioned authority. Such a process would maximize the matches between school and student preferences. Unified open-enrollment systems that encompass as many choices as possible from the regular public, charter, private, and virtual school universes are essential to the expansion of choice and competition in K-12 education. These systems have to be designed so that all schools have the same time frame for applications and admission decisions, and so that they cannot be gamed by either schools or applying families."

Hard to imagine that congressional lawmakers will be drafting No Child Left Behind reauthorization proposals along these lines anytime soon. But NCLB already includes measures designed to promote public school choice—which many choice advocates say are toothless. Could trace elements of the Koret Task Force's ideas make their way into federal law, or are they confined to the world of think tanks and academia?

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