‘Game Changers’ in K-12 choice

Perun, the rock star of Australian defense economists doing awesome hour-plus hour PowerPoint presentations on YouTube, recently did two such presentations on “game-changing” weapon systems in the ongoing Ukraine-Russian war. Perun observed:

It seems like every time a new weapon system, be it Russian or Western, is sent to Ukraine, there are always going to be at least some voices in the media that amp this thing up as the next great game-changer, the system that will finally change the dynamics of this long and bloody war. For some systems the hype dies out, whereas for others it builds and builds until eventually the system arrives in Ukraine, and reality and expectations finally collide.

Some get to Ukraine and turn out to be utter disappointments. Others turn out to be solid, useful performers that do the job they were intended to do, but don’t exactly quickly or efficiently move the needle. And others swing in like a damn wrecking ball and on their first day of operations wreck two Russian airfields and deal the Russian aerospace forces their worst single day defeat since they were the Soviet Air Forces during the Second World War.

Inspired by the great Perun, we will here rank policy interventions designed to increase family options in K-12:

Magnet Schools: Introduced in the 1970s in the hopes of reducing racial segregation in public schools. Below is a placement of every magnet school in the nation with data included in the Stanford Educational Opportunity Project on Grades 3-8 academic growth:


That’s a lot of schools, but their average rate of academic growth is approximately equal to the nation as a whole (half above and half below the “learned one grade level in one year” line. There are many fantastic magnet schools, but the system suffers from a fatal flaw: the schools are ultimately under the control of elected school boards. Many magnet schools have waitlists of students, but districts, for the most part, do not replicate or scale high-demand schools. Unless someone can demonstrate otherwise, let’s assume that Political Science 101 is controlling here and the people working in other district schools don’t want to scale high-demand magnet schools for the same reason they dislike other forms of choice: they view it as a threat. RANKING: TAME HOUSE PET

Charter Schools Introduced in the early 1990s by Minnesota lawmakers, charter schools eventually overtook magnet schools in numbers of schools, as you can see in the same chart as above for charters nationally:

Charters were the leading form of choice for years after their debut, but more recently, it has become sadly clear that they suffer from a problem not terribly dissimilar from magnet schools: a political veto on their opening. Sometimes this veto is delivered by the same districts that fail to replicate high-demand magnet schools, in other instances, it happens because of Baptist and Bootlegger coalitions controlling state charter boards. What the Baptist and Bootleggers started, higher interest rates, building supply chain issues and the death of bipartisan education reform seems to have finished. RANKING: Varies by state but mostly TAME HOUSE PET

District Open Enrollment: Potentially an immensely powerful form of choice, but one which only realizes that potential if other forms of choice create the necessary incentives to get districts to participate. In most places, it looks far too much like this:




See any fancy suburbs willing to take urban kids in this map? Me neither. RANKING: Varies by state but mostly TAME HOUSE PET, could grow to become much, much more

School Vouchers/Scholarship Tax Credit: The modern private choice movement debuted in Wisconsin in 1990, the year before the first charter school law passed in 1991. Voucher adoption proceeded more slowly than charter school laws, and one of the accomplishments of the voucher movement may indeed have been to make charter schools seem safe by comparison. Scholarship tax credits, first passed in Arizona in 1997, expanded around the country more quickly than vouchers. While lawmakers passed several voucher and scholarship tax credit programs, few of them were sufficiently robust to perform critical tasks such as spurring increased private school supply, which requires either formula funding or regular increases in tax credit funding.

Scholars performed a tremendous amount of research on voucher and tax credit programs, and those programs led directly to the creation of education savings accounts (discussed next). Overall, however, these programs did not in and of themselves move the needle, although at times, the deployment of strong private and charter school programs did move the needle. RANKING: Vital Intermediate Step



Education Savings Accounts: First passed by Arizona lawmakers in 2011 and going universal only in Arizona and West Virginia in 2022, ESA programs remain a work in progress. The flexibility of accounts contains the prospect of a less supply-constrained form of choice, less dependent upon the creation of one-stop shopping bundles known as “schools.” The largest first-year private choice programs have all been recently passed ESA programs, which seems promising. ESAs, however, have yet to become a teenager, and the technologies necessary to administer them at scale remain an evolving work in progress. RANKING: Promising but To Be Determined


Personal Use Refundable Tax Credits: Older but tiny programs exist that deliver small amounts of money and accomplish little. Oklahoma passed a more robust program of this type last year, but it remains far too early to draw any conclusions. RANKING: Totally TBD





The homeschool movement has grown quickly is sufficiently organized to make lawmakers think long and hard before starting a quarrel with its supporters and has become more accessible with the advent of homeschool co-ops, which provides a measure of custodial care. RANKING: Wrecked two Russian airfields on the first day of deployment, unclear how high the ceiling will reach.

Conclusion: You should be seeking a combined arms operation in your state rather than a panacea-like super-weapon system that will deliver instant victory. You will know you are winning when your fancy, suburban districts start taking open-enrollment students. You will never achieve this with means-tested or geographically restricted private or charter school programs.







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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.