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Alexandra Hudson: Voucher schools deserve support
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Alexandra Hudson: Voucher schools deserve support

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Why is it that good ideas proliferate and bad ideas disappear in virtually every industry except for education? Think of Apple’s reinvention of handheld phones, Uber’s redefinition of personal transportation, or Airbnb’s transformation of hospitality.

Encouraging entrepreneurship in education—from opening creative new schools, to developing inventive curriculum, and promoting innovative teaching methods—would greatly enhance the availability of high-quality education in America. Competition and choice promotes excellence in education in exactly the same way that it promotes excellence in other products and services like mobile telephones, taxicabs or hotels.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the number of schools opting into the statewide voucher program has increased by 67 percent for the 2016-17 school year. The entrance of these schools into the program demonstrates how schools are willing and able to meet the demands of parents for increased school choice in the Badger State. Unfortunately, a lack of political will prevents state and local leaders from doing more to foster entrepreneurship and innovation in our education system.

Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs—a longtime supporter of charter schools—are celebrated for their vision, ingenuity and innovation. But those same qualities are discouraged, and even criticized, in education. Entrepreneurs who seek a return from their investment in education are viewed with suspicion; but if taxpayers seek to increase the quality and availability of good education, they must demand that entrepreneurs be allowed to benefit from adding value to the educational services industry. If America wants great schools we must encourage competition by incentivizing entrepreneurs to enter into all aspects of the educational field – whether it is opening a new school, becoming a teacher or providing grants and other resources.

Research by Dr. James Tooley of the Newcastle University in the United Kingdom showed that low-cost private schools, run by entrepreneurs, provide high-quality education to students in some of the most impoverished areas in India, China and Africa. Parents in these underprivileged communities use the few resources in their possession to send their children to private schools—even when there was a public school option available for free. His research simultaneously reveals the low quality of the free public schools and the high quality of the private schools. Innovative education markets that run parallel to public school systems flourish in developing nations where the state is not sufficiently developed to impose regulations on education service provision. This market in America continues to be plagued by cumbersome regulations and a lack of political will.

Opponents of entrepreneurship in education fear that competition from choice schools will drain public schools of their brightest students, leaving the public school students worse off. A recent report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty uses global evidence to show that the critics are wrong; the Netherlands, for example, has had a robust voucher-like school choice system since 1917. The Dutch system provides public funding for religious and private schools of all kinds. Yet there are still many high-quality public schools. Public funding of private schools did not result in the collapse of public education as critics fear. To the contrary, competition allows strong public schools to flourish and expand.

Sweden, like the Netherlands, has publicly funded private schools. Research on voucher schools in Sweden shows that the more private schools there are, the higher the average test results were overall in that area. Competition and choice promote quality in education in the same way that it promotes quality in other products and services like mobile telephones, taxicabs or hotels.

In light of these examples of the positive impacts of competition through entrepreneurship in education, it should be the goal of every community to attract the best performing and highest quality educational entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, they do just the opposite. Too many cities, including Milwaukee, lack the political will to make education a more appealing investment for entrepreneurs.

Besides supporting politicians, school board members and administrators who see the value of fostering entrepreneurship in education, the most important efforts parents can make to foster competition are to use choice programs that exist—such as the Milwaukee or Racine Choice program at a city level. Parents should demand eligibility increases for Wisconsin’s statewide choice program, which is arbitrarily limited to only 1 percent of students in the Badger State.

Alexandra Hudson is lead education analyst for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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