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School choice a valuable tool in achieving a worthy goal

Despite a long tradition of public education, American students do not perform well against their peers worldwide.

That is hardly news, but it bears repeating.

A report published last year by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance found a long list of countries in which students are making academic gains far faster than those in the United States. In Latvia, Chile and Brazil, the rate of improvement was three times that of American students. In Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania, the rate of improvement was twice as good as here.

U.S. students didn't lose academic ground during the study period, which covered years from 1995 to 2009, but more countries were improving significantly faster. A study in 2009 ranked U.S. students 25th among 34 nations in math and science.

This makes last week's Indiana Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of a statewide voucher program so important. The world is changing quickly, and disruptive technologies are making advanced learning more accessible and compelling. In an increasingly competitive environment, future economic growth and innovation are necessarily tied to education.

The United States cannot continue doing things as they always have been done. Choice and competition can do much to improve things while still providing universal education.

The Indiana decision gives school choice advocates one of their largest victories to date. In that state, more than 60 percent of families are now eligible for some kind of voucher, which can divert anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of the public funds used for a child's education to be used at the parents' discretion for tuition to a private or religious school. That means that at least 10 percent of that money returns to public schools that, all too often, complain they are somehow getting cheated in this arrangement, despite being paid for students they no longer have to educate.

Indeed, the arguments against school choice appear increasingly self-serving for defenders of the status quo in light of the positive impact these innovations are having in the lives of actual schoolchildren.

"Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both," according to nine prominent education scholars reporting their research findings to Education Week online. They go on to say that "[a]chievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time." They also note a "substantial positive impact" on graduation rates, as well as "consistently positive" results in areas related to "student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values."

It's important to remember that these results come from a variety of different approaches, from Indiana's sweepingly inclusive law to the District of Columbia, where only 3 percent of the total student population is allowed to participate in a controversial voucher program. The differences in implementation of school choice principles from state to state allow for greater experimentation, which, in turn, will yield a broader perspective about what works and what doesn't. Such diversity also allows those at the local level to tailor their school choice prescriptions to the needs of their communities.

In Alabama, the approach has been to provide tax credits to help rescue students from failing public schools. Arizona has broadened eligibility requirements for education savings accounts that can be used to fund private school tuition. To date, 17 states now offer some form of school choice, and no two states are exactly alike.

This is as it should be.

No two students – or two states – have identical needs, and every effort should be made to create a system that rises to the unique challenges posed by unique circumstances. There should be no one-size-fits-all approach to education, except in this regard – the singular focus of the system should be on providing a quality education for children. School choice, with all its variations, has proved to be a valuable tool in achieving that worthy goal. We look forward to continued scholastic innovation in the years to come.