There’s no getting around it—compared to the last few years, 2014 brought much less progress for school choice. New programs were created in Florida and Kansas, and an Arizona program was modestly expanded. But if school choice supporters were the kind of people to get discouraged by an off year, choice would have been dead years ago.
Instead, we now have 51 private school choice programs in 24 states and Washington, D.C., serving more than 300,000 students. And all the long-term trends are moving in our direction.
“Long-term trends—sure,” you might be saying. “That’s exactly what every movement says when the tide turns against it.” And you’d be right! But school choice has more than optimism on its side. It has history.
School choice has survived more apparent deaths than the Doctor on Doctor Who. Just like on that show, the bystanders may think the hero is going to die, but those who know him have seen him “regenerate” and come back a dozen times. Those of us who have been following school choice for a long time have seen the same thing.
Right from the start of the modern school choice movement, it has had a natural life cycle. The first modern voucher program was created in Milwaukee in 1990, and over the next few years a handful of additional programs were created. Then nothing for a few years, and people began to say the choice movement had failed. Then, from 1998 to 2001, a much more impressive series of victories expanded school choice further than before. And then a few fallow years, and people said it was dead again—just in time for a series of even larger victories, creating and expanding choice programs in 2005-2006.
Then another pause, and this time the voices of doom got as loud as they ever have. The Washington Monthly published a huge feature on the death of vouchers in 2008. Other periodicals joined in. Even the conservative Weekly Standard published an article on the failure of vouchers.
And then, in 2011, came what the Wall Street Journal dubbed “The Year of School Choice.” Early in that year, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews bet me voucher bills wouldn’t clear more than a handful of legislative chambers. Within weeks, I had won the bet, so we agreed on a new number—and I won that bet, too. Choice had its best year ever. And it kept racking up victories in 2012 and 2013, which is why there are so many programs serving so many students today.
It’s a funny thing. Every time we go through this cycle, the victories get bigger. But the inevitable claims that school choice is dead get louder every time, too. It’s almost as if the people on the other side feel like they need to shout more if their declarations of victory are going to be plausible.
So no, I’m not worried. And what about those “long-term trends”? Is that just Pollyannaism? Whistling past the graveyard?
Let’s start with the most obvious way to look at the long term. Who has the votes of the young? A recent survey by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice confirms what common sense suggests: the generation that grew up with the Internet wants choice and customization, not top-down monopoly. Consistently across every type of program—vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts—the younger people are, the more strongly they support school choice.
However, this kind of “cohort effect” can be a tricky thing. One reason the young generation is less wedded to the monopoly system is that they’re not the ones who benefit from it financially. They will grow up, and as they do, more of them will be in a position to get on the gravy train.
That leads to my next long-term trend. The gravy train itself is falling apart. State governments are getting squeezed ever tighter by unsustainable budgets. This year, for the first time in living memory, public school spending went down rather than up. And the terrible thing about a gravy train is this: when the train starts to slow down, the passengers turn on each other ferociously. The infighting will really begin when our trillion-dollar teacher pension promises begin to come due.
And then there’s the adaptive success of school choice. Like the Doctor on the BBC show, school choice can take on new forms. The recent invention of education savings accounts—including this year’s new Florida program as well as the one that was expanded in Arizona—is a major breakthrough. Instead of a voucher redeemable once a year at a single school, we give parents an account they can use to purchase any and all kinds of education services; leftover money can be saved up, even for college. That gives parents a lot more control, and eliminates perverse incentives for administrative bloat in private schools. Down the line, better program design will earn more victories.
The most important omen for the long term, though, is the war of ideas and moral legitimacy. Nobody takes the school unions and other guardians of the status quo seriously any more. The mask is off; everyone knows they’re all about the gravy train. Moreover, in milder forms like charter schools, the principle of choice has been almost universally accepted on both sides of the political aisle. How long can people go on supporting charters but opposing private choices, especially as it becomes clear charter schools don’t have enough freedom to reinvent education?
As Matt Ladner likes to say, these days the “cool kids” in education are the entrepreneurs who invent radically new kinds of schools. A few years ago, everyone was atwitter about the revolutionary potential of these “greenfield” experiments. Recently, though, the bloom is off the rose. People are beginning to realize that the world of tomorrow isn’t going to be so easy to build. Where will they turn for the tools they need to truly reinvent education? Universal choice is looking better and better.
All this is not to say success is guaranteed. Of course it isn’t; it never is. The unions and their friends still have plenty of money and power, and that counts for a lot. Reformers have squandered opportunities in the past through strategic and tactical blunders, and may do so again. For that matter, any or all of the trends I’ve mentioned may change.
Nonetheless, I still think it’s our battle to lose. Martin Luther King, sitting in that Birmingham jail, didn’t think he was losing. He knew he was winning. Never mind that the segregationists had all the money, all the laws, all the hoses, all the dogs, and all the guns. King had a just cause and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Now that’s a long-term trend worth watching.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of five books, and has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014).