School choice is typically a state issue. When Congress debated long-overdue reforms to No Child Left Behind this year, school choice was not the main focus, or even a secondary focus. A few amendments came up that would have allowed federal funding to follow a child to his or her school of choice, but none were approved.
When the various provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act take effect, school choice should be largely unaffected. But you wouldn't know it by the number of celebratory press releases I received from pro-school choice groups after the Senate voted Wednesday to send the final bill to President Obama.
"The bill is a step forward in empowering parents with more options to determine the schools where their children learn best and gives the power back to states to determine how best to assess and improve its schools," PublicSchoolOptions.org said.
Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, praised the bill for including "enhanced support for charter schools (including the expansion and replication of successful charter school models)," among other reasons.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said Senate passage means "charter school advocates are one step closer to a big victory in achieving their slate of priorities, including critical updates to the federal Charter Schools Program." The group's president and CEO, Nina Rees, called it "an exciting moment for the charter school movement."
The Center for Education Reform applauded passage while reminding the public that the bill isn't perfect. "I salute the leaders in Congress, and the advocacy and education groups who together forged this critical compromise legislation defining the appropriate role for the federal government in education affairs," said Jeanne Allen, the group's founder and president-emeritus. "Much, however, remains to be done, including correcting existing overreach of the federal education regulations into the affairs of state charter authorizing and oversight."
Allen told the Washington Examiner that the Every Student Succeeds Act won't affect school choice very much. The bill actually prohibits the secretary of education from incentivizing or punishing states for adopting or rejecting certain education policies.
Allen is among those pushing for federal money to follow students to schools of choice, in states that have choice programs. "This is a concept that just doesn't get through, not just to Democrats, but to many suburban and rural Republicans who school board leaders convinced that that is somehow unfunding or defunding public education." Allen gave credit to Republican leadership for supporting the idea that funding should follow students.
In theory, families might have more choices among the public schools if those choices are dictated less by top-down federal education regulations. Giving school districts more freedom and flexibility from Washington, D.C., should allow public schools to differentiate themselves from each other.
Allen doubts that theory. "I'm skeptical that the rollback which is necessary will actually translate into differentiation because the culture of traditional public schooling doesn't allow for that differentiation anyway," she said. "As long as there's a traditional public school mindset where labor contracts play a huge role in dictating how operations are done, where different bureaucracies are more powerful than students and parents, that we won't see much differentiation no matter what the law says."
Charter schools are one aspect where the Every Student Succeeds Act will impact school choice. "The charter language in the bill is a double-edged sword," Allen said. "There's more money, there's increased funding for start-up grants." Those start-up grants used to be block grants with wide flexibility for states. Now, not so much anymore. "The charter grant program has become very formulaic and very regulatory," Allen said.
Language in the bill requires states to show what they're doing to oversee charter authorizers. But many states have no role in overseeing charter authorizers.
Allen gave the example of New York, where the State University of New York is a charter school authorizer. But the university reports to the state legislature, not the state education department. "The federal bill inadvertently, and maybe not so inadvertently if the unions had a role in this, gives the states more control to manage chartering from the top-down, which is something we're going to begin to immediately address right after the new year."
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.