Wresting total control of America’s schoolchildren from the government-union educational complex is moving apace. 2021 was declared “The Year of Education Choice,” when 19 states enacted 32 new or expanded educational choice policies, and West Virginia became the first state in the country to establish universal school choice in the form of an education savings account (ESA). This type of choice allows parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted but multiple uses. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other higher education expenses.
While many choice programs existed prior to the Mountain State’s Hope Scholarship, they all came with restrictions – typically limited to special ed students or children whose families were near the poverty line.
Last year, Arizona became the second state to jump aboard the “school choice for all” train. And in the first 100 or so days into 2023, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and Florida have followed suit.
But wait, there is so much more!
Oklahoma, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas, Nebraska, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kansas, and Pennsylvania are working on school choice bills. In Georgia, Republicans in the state House recently helped defeat a choice bill, but it may come back for consideration next year.
Why is this happening at such breakneck speed now? Clearly the teacher union-led Covid-related shutdown mandates which closed schools all over the country is a major reason. But as Heritage Foundation scholars Jay Greene and Jason Bedrick explain, there is another factor. While they acknowledge that traditionally, school choice has been successful in red states, that is changing. Now, more and more families in suburban and rural areas are concerned about the kinds of values their children are being taught in public schools. “Radical academic content and school practices are not confined to large urban school districts on the coasts. Even in small towns across America’s heartland, public-school staffs have become emboldened to impose values on students that are strongly at odds with those preferred by parents.”
American Enterprise Institute fellow Robert Pondiscio sums it up succinctly, “School Choice Winning Streak? It’s Culture War, Stupid.”
It is also worth noting that a recent national poll reveals that of 634 parents interviewed, 59.7% support ESAs, with 14.6% opposed and 25.7% undecided. Also, 67.5% of Democrats, 61.3% of Republicans, and 55.3% of Independents are in favor of ESAs. Additionally, support for ESAs is strong among black parents, with 70.3% in favor of the program. By comparison, 59.1% of white parents and 50.8% of Hispanic parents support ESAs.
A June 2022 poll from RealClear Opinion Research found that 82% of Republicans, 68% of Democrats, and 67% of independents support school choice.
One other reason that school choice is advancing at such a rapid clip is because of “The School Choice Movement’s Greatest Saleswoman.” Per American Enterprise Institute researcher Max Eden – citing school choice “evangelist” Corey DeAngelis – that would be Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Most recently, the union boss – who apparently is clueless as to how she affects people – gave a speech at the National Press Club titled, “In Defense of Public Education,” which was loaded with falsehoods. For example, “The Betsy DeVos wing of the school privatization movement is methodically working its plan: Starve public schools of the funds they need to succeed. Criticize them for their shortcomings. Erode trust in public schools by stoking fear and division, including attempting to pit parents against teachers. Replace them with private, religious, online, and home schools. All toward their end goal of destroying public education as we know it, atomizing and balkanizing education in America, bullying the most vulnerable among us, and leaving the students with the greatest needs in public schools with the most meager resources.”
Of course, no one is trying to get rid of “public education.” The “Betsy DeVos wing” simply wants to give parents choices. But tone-deaf Randi seems to be incapable of understanding that.
But she’s not done. “It’s an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority of Americans. It’s hurting our efforts to do the work we need to do, which is educating the nearly 50 million kids who attend America’s public schools. And the urgent work of helping kids recover from learning loss, sadness, depression, and other effects of the pandemic.”
“A vocal minority of Americans?” With a majority of Republican, Democrat, Independent, black and Hispanic parents in favor of ESAS, she once again shows herself to be absolutely devoid of reality.
Also, Weingarten’s “starving public schools” crack has been proven wrong again and again. As Ben DeGrow, Policy Director of Education Choice for Excelined, explains, private school choice programs have saved states somewhere between $12 billion and $28 billion. That’s because students in the 40 choice programs studied are typically funded at lower rates than their public school peers. He adds, “Only a tiny sliver of total K-12 spending underwrites private school choice. The funding that families use nationwide—in the form of vouchers, scholarships and ESAs—still falls well below 1% of the growing sum of money available to public school systems.”
Additionally, Center for Education Reform CEO Jeanne Allen writes, “In many states, students who switch from public schools don’t bring all their funding with them. Instead, they typically enroll in other schools with only a portion of what is spent on district students. In Philadelphia, the district retains $10,000 for every student who goes to a charter school. In Pinellas County, Fla., when a student uses his $7,000 empowerment scholarship on a private alternative, $11,000 stays in the district. So in addition to districts being ‘held harmless’ when students depart, and getting reimbursed for the slice of funding they would otherwise lose when students leave, some are holding on to funding that should follow students to their new school.”
Finally, there is a movement afoot for federal involvement in school choice. U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Congressman Adrian Smith (R-NE) introduced the Educational Choice for Children Act, which would:
- Provide $10 billion in annual tax credits to be made available to taxpayers. Allotment of these credits to individuals would be administered by the Treasury Department.
- Set a base amount for each state and then the credits are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- Use a limited government approach with respect to federalism, thus avoiding mandates on states, localities, and school districts.
- Include provisions that govern Scholarship Granting Organizations, as SGOs are given the ability to determine the individual amount of scholarship awards.
While any federal role in educational choice should be shunned, this bill is an exception. As Chris Talgo, editorial director at The Heartland Institute, writes, the ECCA would “create a federal scholarship tax credit, which would, “incentivize individual and corporate contributions to non-profit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs): private donations – not federal money – up to $10 billion annually to enable parents to choose the best school or education service for up to two million children.”
Talgo adds, that importantly, “the federal scholarship tax credit would not fall under the bailiwick of the Department of Education and would not add a single penny to federal spending, because only private donations would fund the program.” While this is not a universal choice measure, a household family of four making $90,000 per year would be fully eligible to participate in the ECCA. Thus, the program would be a boon for lower- and middle-class families.
Should it become law, ECCA would enable millions of students trapped in unsafe, failing public schools to have a chance to enroll in private schools, without having to worry about how to cover the cost of tuition.
I will end with my perennial question: Families have choices in the doctor they use for their children. Parents choose the food, clothes, and toys they buy for their kids. So why shouldn’t they have a choice as to what school their kids attend?
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.