Increasing school choice demand will increase pressure for change

I am grateful to Rebecca Sibilia and Sean Gill for their thoughtful response to my blog post encouraging Michelle Rhee to replace her failing schools model of school choice with an approach based on equal opportunity.

Rebecca and Sean defended StudentsFirst’s support of the failing schools model on pragmatic grounds. They wrote: “When state resources are limited or the existing supply of desirable private schools is limited, it also makes sense to prioritize vouchers or scholarships for those low-income children attending a low-performing school or living in low-performing school districts.”

Every community suffers from an insufficient supply of effective schools for low-income students. But in Florida we’ve learned that increasing demand – not limiting demand – is the best way to increase supply.

Access to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students, which I help administer, is limited by a state-imposed cap. But our demand is not limited, so it often exceeds supply. This excess demand has not had a negative effect on students or the program. Instead, it has generated political pressure on the state Legislature to allow our cap to rise to meet this additional demand.

In 2010, as a result of excessive demand, the Florida Legislature voted to allow our program to grow 25 percent every year the demand hits or exceeds 90 percent of supply. The result has been extraordinary growth of supply and demand. While we have been awarding scholarships since 2002, 34 percent of our growth has occurred in just the last two years. This school year we added 10,000 more students to the program and had more than 12,000 students add their names to our waiting list after we hit our cap.

We’ve also been adding about 100 new private schools per year to the program, and some have started to expand their physical capacity to serve more students. Had we adopted the StudentsFirst approach of limiting demand when faced with limited supply, this extraordinary growth would not have occurred.

Today, more than 43 percent of Florida’s preK-12 students attend a school other than their assigned district school. Charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, career academies, dual enrollment and homeschooling are all growing dramatically. Private schools are already struggling to maintain their market share given all these choices. If we were to limit our scholarships to low-income students in state-designated failing schools, then many private schools serving low-income students might be forced to close – to everyone’s detriment.

Consistent with their pragmatic approach, Rebecca and Sean acknowledge that in some states limiting demand may not be the best strategy. But the laws of supply and demand hold true in all 50 states.  Unmet demand will always create pressure for additional supply, and, in the case of K-12 education, that pressure will be political, economic and moral.  I can understand why governors and state legislators want to avoid subjecting themselves to these pressures, but we should not accommodate them.

Rebecca and Sean cite Tennessee as a state where they think limiting low-income students’ access to scholarships is the best way to address limited supply, but I respectfully disagree. If allowing all low-income children in Tennessee equal access to tax credit scholarships creates long waiting lists and angry parents, so be it. This angry excess demand will drive more supply.

In the context of K-12 politics, limiting demand limits political capital, and that’s never a good idea. Instead of denying low-income families equal opportunity, we should be helping them make their voices heard in the state capital.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.

One Comment

I have a friend whose daughter was teaching at a small private school. She taught six preps of HS math, using her AA degree in Elementary Education, something she would have never been allowed to do in a public school. The school is a small religious school that has links on its web-site right to Step up for Students. They get vouchers paid for by the public and there is noway they are getting a quality education.

The problem isn’t people are against choice, people want whats best for children, the problem is the choices by and large are not only hurting the best thing around, public schools, but they are substandard. Slow down and get it right and people will jump on your bandwagon, plow through grabbing all you can, wasting money and children’s futures along the way and people are going to fight you tooth and nail.

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