School Choice Debate About Opportunity Not the Supreme Court

Charlie Arlinghaus

September 3, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Last week’s Supreme Court decision moved the focus of the state’s nascent School Choice Scholarship Program from lawsuits and politics squarely back to children and opportunity. Ultimately, the court’s decision to leave this in the hands of the legislature focuses the debate on opportunity — parents and children seeking the best educational opportunity for their best future.

School choice has become such a political football and the arguments so arcane that it can be easy to forget what the debate is about – children and their education. For one segment of our population, school choice is not a potential program but is reality. Wealthy Granite Staters enjoy a plethora of choices and routinely consider what might be the best educational option for each individual child. One of their children may go to one school while his brother or sister attends a different one tailored to his or her needs, interests, and specialties. The wealth of these families creates opportunities.

The debate over school choice has never been primarily about lawsuits. As I wrote in a paper for the Josiah Bartlett Center more than ten years ago, “In the end, however, the debate over school choice is not about constitutional criteria or religious intolerance. It’s about opportunity. Everyone admits that the choices enjoyed by those who can afford them lead to better outcomes for their children. The only debate is whether or not those same choices will be extended to parents and children of lesser means.”

Rich people have school choice. Poor people do not. Few people doubt that the ability to consider multiple educational options and match them more appropriately to the unique needs of an individual student leads to better outcomes for those students. The state’s school choice scholarship program is designed for the students without those same opportunities.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the politics of the situation. Interest groups and ideological warriors on both sides of the question will get caught up in debates and arguing bits of history (it is only just conceivable that I may be guilty of this myself). For a bit of grounding in practicality, we must turn to that infrequent source of common sense, The Washington Post.

The Washington Post is a reliably liberal newspaper but school choice sometimes has the power to blur lines. Witnessing the need for greater opportunity and hope in the District of Columbia led them to toss aside ideological arguments and remind us that “What shouldn’t get forgotten in this seemingly endless fight are the people with the most at stake: parents who simply want what’s best for their children.”

Instead of discussing whether the law is good or bad for children, provides or doesn’t provide greater opportunity, opponents are reduced to talking budgets. The governor frets that the program diverts millions of dollars (actually $128,568 last school year) and decimates the budgets of existing schools. This echoes the ACLU argument that the program will inflict large fiscal losses on municipalities. If you listened to either of these ill-informed critics you wouldn’t know that the law actually limits the loss of aid in any district to a miniscule one-quarter of 1% of the prior budget.

Their financial misdirection is not nearly as egregious as their oversight of opportunity. No one would seriously disagree that increasing the number of options to consider is good for students and their parents. Instead, opponents are reduced to claiming that while options are all well and good, some options ought not be allowed – notably anything that contains a whiff of religion. Some more cynical actors are sometimes heard to say that some parents don’t know what’s best for their kids and can’t be allowed to make those decisions themselves.

As with any good policy, the primary argument for school choice is individualist rather than ideological. No one school, whether the traditional school, the public charter school, or an independent school is the right choice for each and every student in a particular zip code. Each student is an individual with different needs and different interests. One choice is not enough to address those needs.

In New Hampshire, the school choice program will always be relatively small. But every student should have a choice between smaller and larger schools; private, public, or public charter schools; traditional, Montessori, or Waldorf schools; specialized or more general schools. The goal I identified ten years ago stands today: providing students for whom their only current option isn’t working the means to find another choice that suits their individual needs – in plain and simple terms, greater opportunity.