Through Saturday it’s National School Choice Week, an annual nonpolitical effort to increase visibility and positive feelings about the idea of families having the primary power to control their kids’ education. Beginning in 2011, President Obama recognized the week, and this year President Trump did, too.
The last approximately five years saw a marked increase in states finally opening the doors to voucher and other parent choice programs after more than 50 years of free-marketers’ advocacy. Although it descends from Founding-era school funding arrangements, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was the most significant modern thinker to develop and advocate the concept, most notably with a seminal 1955 essay.
But it took 56 years of making this case to lawmakers and the public before state legislatures’ successful activity on the matter prompted the Wall Street Journal to dub 2011 “The Year of School Choice.” That year, 13 states passed significant education choice measures. The WSJ, however, may have used the moniker too soon, as in 2012 and 2013 state legislatures followed with a fresh bevy of choice program establishment and expansions, to the point that today the majority of states offer some kind of parent-choice program, and many offer several.
Since 2013, however, legislative activity on this matter has slowed. It’s not because there isn’t room to grow, either. While 2011 to 2013 saw a significant increase in the variety of education choices states allowed parents to make with their kids’ share of public resources, the programs implemented during this time were typically highly regulated and poorly funded. This has dramatically limited their appeal and use.
Thus today, only about 5 percent of the U.S. school-age population uses school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, state tax deductions and credits, and education savings accounts (my calculation using EdChoice and federal data). If you eliminate students using state education tax credits and deductions, the national percentage of private choice students shrinks to 0.8 percent, or essentially a rounding error.
Let’s remember why school choice was proposed and gained momentum in the first place. Its deepest basis is justice: it is morally wrong to trap families into schools that do not serve their needs by basing school access on mere ZIP code. It is also morally wrong to treat families and children as pawns in an education system run with little meaningful influence from those most deeply affected by what schools do (parents and kids, of course). Parents are the rightful and best source of direction for children’s upbringing, and lawmakers and bureaucrats have increasingly removed the U.S. public education system from the people it is supposed to serve.
This has led, not only to high rates of public dissatisfaction with U.S. schooling, but also to subpar student achievement and an increasingly ignorant and morally emaciated citizenry. That’s an existential crisis for a country predicated on self-government.
Now, research resoundingly finds that private school choice increases academic achievement, civic engagement, the quality of local public schools, and all sorts of other goods. Further, the United States, at all levels of government, faces a massive old-age welfare crisis (from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid liabilities; and state pension and health welfare programs), and school choice is one of the few win-win options that could help alleviate it, since school choice produces a better education at significant savings to taxpayers.
Given the persistent need for more and better school choice faster, and a president in the White House who in his campaign proposed a national voucher program, some might say the answer is further nationalizing U.S. education. That’s essentially what a national voucher program would accomplish, and it would be a disaster.
For proof, look no further than federal college subsidies, which have created a subprime college bubble of dramatically inflated prices and dramatically lower quality. The subsidies have also opened the door for the federal government to micromanage and politicize schools’ operations, creating additional crises such as deforming Title IX to replace female preferences with transgender preferences, creating campus tribunals to punish innocent students based on mere accusations of heinous crimes, and credential inflation, which has deeply damaged the job market.
The point is clear: Centralizing an industry in crisis only makes things worse. Instead, state lawmakers need to once again get cracking on fulfilling the promise of school choice for the betterment of their states. They need to stop following the example of DC politicians in avoiding hard choices and continuing to placate and validate the special interests whose leadership has steered public education into snowdrifts for a full century now.
Let’s hope realizing this doesn’t take the actual hit of the pension and other state budget crises, or another 56 years of advocacy. That would be a dereliction of duty for which the American people need to immediately start holding their representatives accountable.
In these needed improvements to choice programs, lawmakers can take pointers from the recent tax code adjustments Congress passed in December. Perhaps the most dramatic advance for school choice in 2017 was accomplished, not through the tax-preferred college account expansion actually labeled a school choice measure, but through the child tax credit expansion. The “school choice” measure, while well-meant, has several flaws. For one, it offers a relatively minor incentive for choosing a non-assigned school, because it runs the money through tax-advantaged accounts that depend on compound interest. That means they can offer little savings in the short span between a child’s birth and entering K-12.
In sum, the 529 plan expansion to K-12 inside the tax law helps a very limited subset of the population, offers only marginal financial leveling to a system that heavily advantages fully government-subsidized schooling, and requires people to jump through extra hoops (visiting a financial planner to set up a special account, doing more paperwork, meeting extra regulations) to access it. Limited applicability, relatively petty funding, and high regulatory burden are all significant problems for existing school choice programs, as well.
In contrast, the child tax credit expansion applies to nearly all parents, is simpler to understand and implement, offers a greater financial advantage, and most crucially puts power directly with individual families instead of bureaucrats. Families, and nobody else, decide how they will use the extra $1,000 per child the CTC expansion affords. Many can, and I wager will, use that money to put their kids in private school, or buy educational opportunities such as music lessons. We certainly plan to. A thousand bucks is some real money, and those of us with kids have plenty of good uses for it.
These principles of broad access, equalizing funding between competing options (i.e. public schools), and affirming parents as the key decision-makers instead of bureaucrats are crucial to letting school choice work its magic. State lawmakers can implement them by expanding choice to all families in their states, letting families control their child’s full education resources rather than relatively small carveouts, and letting families’ choices provide an accountability far more robust than bureaucrat-favored yet ineffective testing, curriculum, and teacher surveillance mandates.
We know that taking decisions far away from parents makes schooling more susceptible to fads and politicization, which degrades education and breeds civic resentment. Common Core, as well as the entire history of modern education “reform,” has made that so clear that even people who play it safe like U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are finally able to publicly acknowledge that truth. It’s time to learn from America’s history with terrible education policy, and apply that learning to real life. This National School Choice Week is a good time to demand that, rather than platitudes and half-measures, U.S. lawmakers deliver their constituents full and genuine parent choice in education.