Across the country, state legislatures are either considering implementing vouchers or deciding on possible expansion of such programs. The old argument for pro-voucher supporters of providing competition to traditional public schools to improve them has been augmented as part of a comprehensive “Parents Bill of Rights.” Proponents argue that parents should have the chance to find educational opportunities that best fit their children; and it has been suggested that they should have an opportunity to escape the manufactured “woke agenda” they say is prevalent in every school. These initiatives, along with legislation to expand charter schools and home schooling, have staggering implications for how children are educated in this nation.
Traditional public schools are often slow to react to such challenges as these bills are considered and, sometimes, even slower to adjust once they pass. If school districts, working with various associations, do wish to challenge these legislative initiatives they have to bring stronger arguments than just the financial impact of vouchers. The loss of funds to traditional public schools tends to be the main argument for voucher opponents; and it is common for law makers considering vouchers to underestimate their cost and potential future funding impacts. However, this position puts funding in front of providing the best options for educating children; hardly a wining argument. More impactful positions can be centered on the accountability of those funds. Most states allowing vouchers do not place the same academic and operational requirements on private schools as they do traditional public schools. This hardly constitutes a “level playing field of competition” pro vouchers supporters like to tout, and provides no meaningful way to show how students are doing when they access a voucher. Additionally, it is important to point out who has the “choice” with vouchers. While advocates like to suggest it is the parent, the reality is it is the private school. They can still choose to accept some students and refuse others, while also quickly separating from students who prove challenging. And where will those students go? Back to the public schools who don’t operate with the same framework. Finally, it is fair to point out who will really benefits from a voucher. While many advocates suggest it is poor families trapped in failing public schools, they don’t provide an explanation for how those same families can bridge the price difference between the voucher and tuition which can be thousands of dollars.
If legislation advances and vouchers are introduced or expanded, then school districts must consider how best to compete in an environment not set in their favor. While leading one of the largest school districts in the country, we experienced an expansion of choice programs in the state. As many district leaders explored why parents choose options other than traditional public, the research led to some fascinating results. While perceived better academic or safety concerns were often cited, the main reason research suggests centers around the concept of the choice of schools making “parents feel accomplished.” In other words, does my choice, make me feel as a parent, that I’m so sure of my decision I will put the school bumper sticker on the back of my minivan? Even when shown data to suggest better academic performance from the local public school many parents will still choose the perceived “better school,” which is often a private institution.
What does this mean for traditional public schools? First, nothing is more important than continuing to improve on academic, safety and operational excellence. Be better than other choice options and have the data to prove it. Next, consider ways to market your schools as places of choice. That may mean strengthening current programs or introducing new options that make a parent want those opportunities for their children such as STEM, Montessori or advanced academics. Finally, school districts must learn to market better. Having been a leader in both the public and private sectors, I can attest this is not a strength of most districts. Remember, your brand is not what you say you are, it’s what people say about you. Make sure the brand of your schools is such that they are viewed as the first, best options for parents, not a false narrative established by others to propagate vouchers.