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How Can School Choice Best Lead Us to the Greenfield of Effective Innovation?

Once in awhile you read something that makes you really step back and think. In that spirit I commend to you the new Friedman Foundation report The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice by Greg Forster and James Woodworth. Want to know what I mean? Start off with a statement like this potent summary:

Existing choice programs transfer students from marginally less effective public schools to marginally more effective private schools, but they do not seem to drive more ambitious school reforms.

Forster and Woodworth dive into the data, unpacking the private-sector share of students and schools in places where school choice has had the biggest reach, such as Milwaukee, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. Generally speaking, while doors are opening to break down some segregation, the private sector is shrinking and still catering to provide niche educational opportunities. Far and away, the greatest amount of true innovation is coming from charter schools, which includes blended learning superstars like Carpe Diem and Rocketship.

Existing voucher and tax-credit programs are not leading to “greenfield”-style innovations, the authors argue. What do they mean by that? It’s not referring to the city in Wisconsin (where collective bargaining reform has achieved great fame) nor to its namesake in Indiana (where the nation’s largest voucher program is just over a year old). Forster and Woodworth borrow from Rick Hess’ 2010 book Education Unbound:

In schooling, creating greenfield requires scrubbing away our assumptions about districts, schoolhouses, teacher training, or other familiar arrangements so that we might use resources, talent, and technology to support teaching and learning in smarter, better ways.

Wow, creating brand new ways to make sure the maximum number of students learn and succeed. Their answer? Bigger, broader, more thoughtful voucher-style programs, universal choice, because the current ones are “small, underfunded, and overregulated.” One assumes their critique would also include the newer, larger-scale private school choice programs in Indiana and Louisiana. But any real kind of useful data is not yet available.

Writing at Choice Words, Adam Emerson disagrees with the authors’ conclusion:

…Some charter school networks the researchers hold up as examples of innovation, especially KIPP, blossomed by serving a predominately low-income and minority population.

And these charter operators benefitted from a political foundation that was built to welcome change agents and entrepreneurs….Someday, their efforts could drive change in all sectors of education, especially if that political climate allows more money to follow each child. That’s the more logical step to the greenfield.

True food for thought. It is key to remember, though, as the report’s authors point out, that choice is not an end in itself, but will only yield full success if it leads to new, promising, and ultimately effective student-centered learning innovations.