Strengthen Our Public Schools and Celebrate Choice Expansions
Thanks to an historic expansion of school choice passed last year, tens of thousands of Hoosier schoolchildren are newly eligible to select from among many high-quality educational options. And while its critics assert school choice harms public education, in fact, choosing a public school is also school choice.
Last spring, the state legislature expanded Indiana’s Choice Scholarship (voucher) and Tax Credit Scholarship programs, which help families fund tuition at the school that works best for them. The Choice Scholarship program had previously grown by leaps and bounds, with enrollment rising from only a few thousand students to more than 35,000. Last year’s legislation increased both eligibility and the average scholarship amount, meaning nearly 80% of Hoosier children qualify financially for this potentially life-changing program.
What’s more, next fall, parents of children with special needs can begin using a new Education Scholarship Account, or ESA. This innovative program allows parents to receive funds in an account that they can use to pay for any combination of school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, or other educational materials. Since their creation in Arizona a decade ago, parents have grown to value the flexibility and customization that ESAs provide. Now, Hoosier parents can realize the same benefits.
But school choice doesn’t just refer to vouchers and non-traditional learning opportunities. It’s extremely compatible with public education. In fact, open enrollment transfers, in which students attend a public school outside their assigned neighborhood school, are the most common form of school choice in Indiana. Indiana also has charter schools, publicly funded schools that receive greater flexibility in exchange for more accountability, and public virtual schools for students to learn at their own pace.
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, school choice doesn’t undermine public education—in fact, it enhances it. Of 27 separate studies examining the issue, all but two found that private school choice improves the educational outcomes of students in public education. Put another way, the competition and innovation sparked by school choice improves educational outcomes for all students—a true win-win solution.
School choice comes in all forms. It’s possible and in fact imperative to celebrate Indiana’s historic expansion of private school choice programs, which give families another option to consider, while simultaneously working to strengthen our public schools. This could include working to make our public-school transportation systems more efficient, thus freeing up more money for teacher salaries. We could also build more bridges between employers and schools of all types, creating more apprenticeships and career-tech opportunities for students.
With more options, Hoosier families have much to celebrate this School Choice Week (Jan. 23-29). Finding the right school can rekindle a student’s love of learning, permanently changing a child’s future. No one type of school works for every child. The expanded scholarship program, and the new ESAs for special-needs parents, will put new quality opportunities within the reach of Hoosier families—but only if parents know and explore their options and take advantage of the choices available to them.
Mr. Pickett is a board member of the Institute for Quality Education and a former member of the Indiana State Board of Education. He served as senior policy adviser to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.