Wisconsin lawmakers passed the first private school choice program in 1990. Lawmakers have since passed dozens of variations, some funded through state tax credits, others voucher programs serving low-income or special-needs students, and, most recently, K-12 education savings accounts (ESAs). The pandemic has created fresh urgency in support of expanded choice programs but also fresh concerns regarding private school independence, including accusations on Twitter and blogs that school choice is a plot to regulate private school options. Three decades of trial and error, however, provides a road map to resolving the tension between private school autonomy and expanding families’ educational freedom.

States already can and do regulate private schools. New York authorities have recently imagined that decades of mismanagement of high-spending but low-performing public schools entitles them to meddle in the affairs of private schools. The state’s proposal to force private schools to provide instruction “substantially equivalent” to that in public schools – along with accreditation, testing, and inspection regulations – comes despite the absence of any choice program in New York.

Over the years, school choice advocates have learned the hard way what not to do. Louisiana, for instance, enacted a heavily regulated school voucher program in 2008 that places onerous admission and curriculum restrictions on participating private schools, as well as a requirement to administer the state annual assessment. As a consequence, a majority of the state’s private schools chose not to participate, and many that did participate had falling enrollments before the advent of the program. When scholars published an academic evaluation of the Louisiana program, it was the first program to show negative results.

Louisiana lawmakers wanted to help some of the most disadvantaged students in the country by passing the voucher program. Low-income students attending poorly rated schools in one of the academically lowest-performing states face formidable challenges. The well-intended people who designed this program sought to prevent bad schools from participating; ironically, however, they wound up keeping the good schools out and inviting the bad schools in.

No school choice program forces families or schools to participate in it and accept the funding – these are voluntary programs. The purpose of a choice program is to increase the pluralism and diversity of options for families – not to teach state academic standards. If parents want schools that are required to teach the state’s academic standards, they have thousands of public schools from which to choose. Some families want to consider something different for their children; this is where choice can help.

Choice programs with lighter regulatory footprints that balance the need for school autonomy with academic transparency see more private school participation. Florida, for example, provides the thousands of private schools participating in three of the state’s programs with a menu of nationally norm-referenced exams that schools can choose to administer to students. These exams do not dictate curriculum, and private schools often already administer these types of tests in order to provide student-performance information to teachers and parents.

Account-based ESA programs, including Arizona’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Account, expand the concept from school choice to education choice. Families can use account-based programs to pay for private school tuition and also tutoring, special education therapists, curriculum, college-course tuition, and many other uses. Affluent Americans have been supplementing the education of their kids with Kumon, Mathnasium, club sports, and other enrichment activities for decades. Account-based choice programs open the opportunity for customized education to all – and in a way directly accountable to parents. If parents don’t like the service provided, they simply put their funds to use elsewhere. And as with all school choice programs, parents and education providers, including private schools, choose whether to participate.

“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection,” Leonardo da Vinci wrote. The COVID-19 pandemic provided plenty of distress; our decades of experience with choice programs should make us brave by reflection. School choice programs enable families to access a broad marketplace of education options, a much better prospect than leaving families trapped in heavily regulated government-run schools that aren’t meeting their needs. Parents should be able to walk away from a school situation that is not working for their children. The next generation of choice programs will place families in the driver’s seat and help educators operate outside of stultifying bureaucratic systems.