One Simple Mistake Could Erase Decades of Progress on School Choice


One way to increase the quality of education is to offer a greater number of choices. Over time, America has done that — with a great deal of success.

In the past 25 years, school choice programs have proliferated across the United States. All states now have some form of school choice laws in effect, ranging from programs like vouchers, to education savings accounts, to tuition tax credits; parents now have more choice in where to send their kids to school than ever before.

The key to it all — expansion has not been the domain of the federal government; quite the contrary, the school choice movement has been a state and local issue for more than two decades.

It’s easy to believe that federal intervention will give the best options for our kids. It's big and burly and authoritative. But that alleged upside is actually a downside, according to education scholar Andy Smarick.

Federal interventions can be quick and uniform. One small tweak to federal law can drive change from coast to coast. But change that starts in Washington risks misunderstanding what's different about local communities, applying clumsy solutions, and generating resentment among stakeholders.

Localism, in contrast, offers a humble, practical approach to policymaking. Pushing authority down means empowering people who know their local communities inside out and who will have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Local decision makers have a tendency to move slowly at first and then make small course corrections as conditions warrant. And this generally produces wiser, more robust reforms that have deep local support.

Each state’s school choice program is going to look different, but that’s a feature not a defect. Each U.S. state, even those bordering one another, has its differences. And that local impact goes to the core of what it means to be a free people.

Localism isn't just good for policy; it can also be transformative for individuals and associations. Putting people in charge of their lives and giving them a say in what happens to their neighbors gives them a sense of agency. It forces them to take responsibility. It drives greater civic engagement. It strengthens and deepens their personal relationships. In these ways, "self-government" is as much about "self" as it is about "government."

School choice is one of the outliers when it comes to education reform, and the difference is obvious compared to federal initiatives. No Child Left Behind? Race To The Top? Common Core? Almost no one can honestly call those ideas successful, except for in its increase of Washington’s control over education.

Washington is too often far-removed from the problems people face in their communities. A bureaucrat in Washington cannot possibly understand the needs of a school in rural Montana. Those closest to educational epicenters are better equipped to find solutions that meet their goals. Now they just need the freedom to try.