What Early Education Can Learn from the K-12 Choice Movement

The developing early education sector can learn a lot from the long history of its K-12 counterpart. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend a great panel discussion on strengthening public school choice in K-12, hosted by a couple of education policy colleagues here at AEI. Entitled "Empowering parents and voters for K-12 education reform," the event highlighted the crucial role of parents in improving public school options, especially for low-income children. Here are a few takeaways.

1. Don't underestimate the fundamental value of choice.
The K-12 and early education sectors are almost polar opposites with respect to the interrelated issues of access and choice. The K-12 public school system provides universal access, but little choice: the overwhelming majority of children are obligated to attend the neighborhood school they're assigned to, regardless of its quality. Low-income children can be trapped in failing schools for years, as their parents look helplessly on from the sidelines. Charter schools that provide new K-12 options have made some inroads, especially in urban districts, but still serve less than 5% of children attending public school. In early education, on the other hand, access is limited but the sector is entirely choice-based, encompassing a widely diverse range of public, non-profit, and for-profit options.

And while parents have been fighting for years for the power to choose what school their child will attend from kindergarten through 12th grade, in early education a family's right to decide what program is best for their children is well-established. Debate continues regarding the extent to which policy should ensure publicly-funded access to early education. But there is broad agreement that the decentralized nature of the early education sector is a unique and significant strength.

Zoned, centrally-managed systems have a poor track record in K-12, especially for disadvantaged children. There's no reason to imagine they'll do better in early education. A choice-driven system that gives decision-making power to parents has a much better chance of sustainable success. Increasing access at the expense of parental choice would be a big mistake.

2. Choice is essential, but supply is also necessary for a strong market.
It's great to be able to choose, but people need options to choose from: as the K-12 choice movement has discovered, a supply of good options is required for market efficacy. To improve both quality and availability of programs, we need policy mechanisms incentivizing new and existing providers to establish and expand programs that meet the needs of families and provide high-quality experiences for children.

For the early education sector to thrive, parents need the freedom to choose programs that meet their needs, good options to choose from, and the financial resources to actually utilize what's available. This "three-legged stool" should be the policy goal for the early education field as it continues to grow.

3. A new generation of parents as empowered consumers must be cultivated.
For a choice-driven system to function correctly, it's important to provide parents with clear and accessible information and build their capacity to choose well. Here, too, lessons drawn from K-12 reform are valuable. On last Thursday's panel, long-time parent organizer Raymond Allmon, an education advocacy fellow at 50CAN, emphasized the need to support the "new choice class" of low-income parents who haven't previously had the opportunity to make educational choices for their children. He explains that parents rely on social networks rather than formal government information to make decisions about where to send their children, and emphasizes that "the messenger is as important as the message." Another panelist, Jon Valant from Tulane University, discussed a study he published last November which found that parents are more receptive to information received from other parents than from government sources. Parents also respond better to narrative than numerical ratings, and trust ratings provided by non-profits over those provided by government agencies

Finally, school reform stakeholders in K-12 have increasingly invested in grassroots efforts to engage and mobilize parents to improve schools. For early education advocates, building on this work may be worthwhile. As my colleague, Andrew Kelly, has recently written, "Organizing parents is time-consuming work, but it can pay significant political dividends." His just-published study examining these growing parent-mobilization initiatives offers useful guidance for the early education field.

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Early education advocates are understandably eager to increase program access, especially for disadvantaged children. But K-12 teaches us the crucial lesson that it's equally important to promote the same meaningful choice for low-income families that wealthier families have. Simply tacking new preschool programs onto failing, government-run schools as an extra grade is a poor strategy for building a robust early education sector.

The long-term success of early education will depend on preserving the sector's mixed-delivery system and remaining grounded in a firm commitment to parental choice and engagement.