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What Voucher Advocates Can Learn From the Charter School Movement

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As the growth of private school choice programs such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts has picked up lately, there's a lot the movement can learn from the charter school sector's two decades of rapid expansion, says a new report out today from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Two Sectors, Three Lessons

Even though voucher programs and charter schools started at roughly the same time in the early 1990s, the two movements have had very different levels of success. In the last two-plus decades charter schools have taken off at a much faster rate: Across the United States, there are currently 2.3 million students enrolled in charter schools and just 300,000 students participating in private school choice programs, according to the new report, which was authored by Andy Smarick of the Washington-based consulting group Bellwether Education Partners.

"What I was trying to respond to was a reflexive answer from a lot of people that the private school system is so different from charters that one cannot learn from the other," says Smarick. "The biggest takeaway for me is that there are several things we can learn from." Among them are three key ideas that Smarick recommends the private school choice movement adopt:

  • Incubation, using nonprofits like The Mind Trust in Indianapolis to fund and develop innovative, high-quality schools;
  • Networks, developing multischool networks like charter-management organizations to provide support and efficiencies;
  • Authorizers, creating independent agencies to oversee school performance and accountability similar to some types of charter school authorizers.

The report says those three things help create, expand, and maintain high-quality schools.

Smarick, who is also a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, says there will always be people who oppose private school choice for philosophical reasons, "but for a large number of people, they are willing to support the idea of private school choice, but they always raise the concern: Are the private schools getting results for kids?"

The Tortoise and the Hare

Those philosophical concerns, specifically that using vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to pay for tuition at private religious schools blurs or even defies the principle of separating church and state, is one factor that may have stymied the growth of private school choice programs over the last 25 years.

"Charter schools are public schools, even though that's sometimes lost in the debate," says Patrick Wolf with the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform, who was not part of the Friedman report. "So the fact that they have public in their name, helps bring in support from some policymakers."

Wolf says it's also just easier to open a charter school then it is to design, pass, and implement a citywide or statewide private school choice program. However, he believes private school choice programs are gaining popularity.

"I see an emerging group that is committed to a three-sector strategy: a reformed and more effective traditional public school sector, a thriving public charter sector, and private school choice through vouchers co-existing especially in urban communities" says Wolf, pointing specifically to the District of Columbia, where students can attend a traditional public school, a charter school, or a private school through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. 

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