Since the Colorado Senate already agrees that school choice is a critical element of school reform, and the U.S. Supreme Court voucher decision removed the legal cloud, the legislature should not settle for a half-way, escape hatch version of school choice.

Twenty years of research and expensive frustration since the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report have proven that the current system is very reform resistant. Efforts to overcome that resistance with high-stakes testing and teacher micro-management have made things worse in many instances. That experience and reams of research demonstrate that genuine competition is our best hope for a better K-12 education system. The constructive, but modest rivalry that results from limited programs like the bill approved by the Colorado Senate is not enough to facilitate the transformation that only a truly competitive education marketplace can deliver. In a truly competitive setting, public and private schools would compete equally for customers. The government wouldn’t favor public schools over privately run schools.

Existing school choice programs and the bill approved by the Colorado Senate provide public school users much more taxpayer funding than private school users. Colorado limits participation to children in failed schools, and they get only 85 percent of the failed school’s per-pupil funding. The same kinds of limits exist in Milwaukee and Cleveland. For example, the Milwaukee program allows vouchers no larger than $5,783, but the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) spend $10,228 per pupil. Price control exists because families cannot supplement voucher funds with their own money. Only a small fraction of low-income families are eligible. Cleveland offers fewer, even smaller vouchers.

Like the bill approved by the Colorado Senate, the Florida program only funds students from the state’s very worst schools. The Florida voucher amount is about half the funds provided for a public school student (Colorado would provide 85 percent), and families cannot use the vouchers at schools that charge more than the voucher amount. In other words, Florida and Colorado families are not eligible until the state certifies that their children are victims of education malpractice. And private schools cannot cash vouchers unless they promise to do more with less: help the voucher users catch up and then outperform their public school peers with much less than failed school’s funding level.

In a truly competitive education market, the government would not discriminate against parents who choose privately run schools for their children. All parents would have genuine choice, and they would be able to choose equally among public and private schools. Limited school choice programs like the Colorado Senate bill help the few children who are lucky enough to participate, but such programs cannot provide the resources and incentives that would greatly improve both public and private schools. Preferential treatment for public school users leaves the current system’s negative elements intact, which prolongs the periodically reaffirmed, intolerable effects that produced the 1983 presidential commission’s “Nation at Risk” declaration. A February 2001 presidential commission’s report on national security included a section on K-12 education problems that said the outcomes of the current system are a serious national security threat.

Without the full-fledged competition that only a universal, non-discriminatory program can foster, choice programs can only produce modest benefits. The current programs mostly fill empty seats in existing private schools. Milwaukee, with the nation’s oldest, largest, and most generous voucher program, has not expanded private school capacity enough to eliminate waiting lists. But in a mature competitive system, school entrepreneurs would form new schools to pursue the huge opportunities to profit by improving upon existing offerings.

Many believe that limited school choice programs will gradually evolve into larger non-discriminatory, universal programs. This may be wishful thinking. Government programs are more likely to gain restrictions than shed them. Choice programs like the one that existed in San Jose, California’s Alum Rock District are gone, and the others are periodically threatened. The original key restrictions like price control, participation limits, and discrimination against private school users remain.

A phase-in period is okay, but experience tells us that it is very important to establish the critical elements in the original legislation. A gradual transition to a mature competitive market is assured by the fact that public schools contain about 90 percent of school capacity. The public schools would have plenty of time to make themselves choice-worthy alongside a growing assortment of private options. Even with a universal, non-discriminatory choice program fully in place, it would take years of rapid growth before the private sector could meet the demands of families that prefer private schools to public schools.

Unfortunately, people in growing numbers appear to see school choice programs as nothing more than potential escape valves for low-income children trapped in the worst inner city schools. That would be fine if the other public schools were okay. Unfortunately, they’re not. Escape valve proposals like the Colorado Senate bill cannot deliver the system-wide improvement a “Nation at Risk” desperately needs. Now that the constitutionality issue no longer clouds the choice debate, we should seek school choice for all children, not just limited programs for the most desperate students. The dream of creating a higher standard of quality for both private schools and public schools can become a reality, but only if we don’t set our sights short of that goal.