When I was a teenager, I worked all summer to afford tutoring for a Kaplan class so I could get into college. If you’d told me that my state government would pay for me to go to a tutor of my choice, I would have been overjoyed. I could have saved that money for college or helped my parents with bills. And, here we are now in 2023, and it’s real. In 32 states and DC, students and families have the chance to get the help they need to cross the socioeconomic chasms in this country and help ensure their children can excel educationally, even if, like me, they come from limited means.
The tides have shifted, and families now have options, be they charters, educational savings accounts, or even school choice.
Educational choice (encompassing both school choice and parental choice for enrichment services like tutoring) is expanding quickly, but that momentum will evaporate if these programs aren’t delivered effectively. Nothing will erase school choice’s momentum faster than poor execution. We already know choice creates large benefits for students – according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, school choice programs lead to a 15-20% improvement in secondary school completion rates, and other studies have shown substantial gains in math and reading achievement – but we still need to prove we can execute these programs at scale. If programs don’t scale well, or we don’t win parental approval and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, America will revert to a system with a decades-long track record of problematically mixed results, particularly for students in low-income families.
Let’s not forget what is at stake. It’s not about union priorities, or ideological divides and party fault lines. It’s about the 11 million kids living in poverty in this country. It’s about the 13.4 million kids in this country who live in rural communities and often cannot access public educational services. We are the stewards of opportunity for these kids, and these kids are the future of the nation. If we are not investing today in giving each of these kids the opportunity to hit their potential, we are not just short changing them, we are short changing our country.
This means we, in the educational choice movement, must keep a laserlike focus on execution. We must run programs that work, as the results already speak for themselves.
As the Chief Operating Officer of Merit, which provides states running educational choice programs with technology that verifies eligibility of participants and providers, handles payments and parental reimbursements, and runs a robust marketplace of providers, I’ve had a front-row seat to learn what works and what doesn’t. There are a few factors that every successful program has incorporated, and it is essential that every new and expanded program follow the same critical steps.
The first, most important step is rigorous standards for all choice providers, including schools, camps, and/or tutors. Choice, after all, is meaningless if none of the choices are good. Choice programs, then, need to verify that the programs available to parents in the marketplace are not just financially sound – i.e., they won’t commit fraud or close in the middle of the semester – but educationally sound as well.
Further, we should be indexing for local providers. Educational choice programs have created a huge opportunity to stimulate local educational programs, creating not just opportunities for offering services to choice program recipients, but enhancing the entire ecosystem of Qualified Educational Services providers. While online options are great and should be offered, choice programs need to focus locally. Supporting local tutors and educational institutions is the best way to do that.
Step two is making the process “frictionless” for parents. We need to remember that while the middle class should absolutely have access to educational choice, most of the families who take advantage of it are low-income. These parents want to do right by their kids, but they frequently work long hours, may not have regular internet access, or may be trying to fill out a bevy of forms on their phones. A system that forces them to fill out the same information over and over again – or where the process isn’t straightforward – will prove a far higher barrier to entry than administrators may realize. States need to allow for Direct Qualification where qualification and participation in other state administered programs can pre-qualify families for participation in educational choice programs. Implementing low-friction pathways like these will significantly reduce the burdens on families and states for program qualification.
At Merit, we’ve seen firsthand how removing these barriers – alongside state partners, of course – can help choice programs grow quickly and effectively. Indeed, Ohio has gone out of its way to make Ohio ACE frictionless, and it is one of the fastest-growing ESA programs in the nation.
Similarly, we have to anticipate that in any matter as important as their kids’ education, parents are going to have questions and want to make sure they are going through the process properly. Merit’s system, for instance, has a dedicated number for parents to call where they can reach experts (who live in-state whenever possible) to help them through the process, not just 9 to 5, but 7 to 7 local, ensuring that even if someone needs to work a full day there is time to have a full conversation to get help before and after the work day.
Third, implementation must be methodical. That doesn’t mean slow; in fact, it means the opposite, as set processes eliminate time-consuming guess work. But the process needs to include setting up systems to detect and stop fraud, ensuring parents can receive reimbursement quickly, and making sure people are trained to answer parent questions before anyone hits the “go” button. Educational choice advocates have all seen headlines about fraud or parents waiting months for reimbursement, and such stories make educational choice far less appealing to parents. The worst part, though, is that educational choice’s opponents will seize on any misstep to keep choice programs from expanding.
Finally, it’s critical to invest in marketing and public relations that treat parents like the adults they are. It may seem obvious, but parents still do need to be alerted to the fact that the option for educational choice even exists – they cannot enroll in something they’ve never heard of. Merit, for instance, has invested in aggressive media outreach campaigns in Ohio and Kansas and has seen the number of enrollees skyrocket as a result. This isn’t expensive to do this right, but it takes the right team to plan and execute these strategies effectively.
That communication with parents during the enrollment process must be transparent about both the benefits and the potential costs of choice. For good reason, parents will not opt into something that sounds too good to be true. I believe educational choice is the responsible option for many parents, but it’s not magic. Some kids will have longer commutes. Some schools will demand more parental engagement. Some schools may underperform public schools. By definition, if some options are above average, some will be below average, too. Good systems will make sure parents are making informed decisions, and, most importantly, have options to choose from.
This is a long list, but we cannot forget how important the payoff is. What could be more important than having an educated nation into the next generation and beyond? If today’s children cannot reach their full potential, our nation never will either. Tomorrow’s innovators, leaders, doctors, and scientists are in school right now, and they live in places like Junction City, Kansas and Youngstown, Ohio, not just Palo Alto, California and Scarsdale, New York. We cannot squander their potential.
When the burdens feel too great, I remember my own experience. I got the help I needed and got a good enough SAT score to get into college (albeit by the skin of my teeth). Without that help, I would have never had the chance to have the career I have; I would never have launched multiple companies, created jobs or, most importantly, given thousands of kids today opportunities that I never had growing up.
The stakes are great, but not as great as our resolve. We must get this right.
Jacob Orrin is the Chief Operating Officer of Merit.