D. Dowd Muska


School Choice: A Reason for Optimism

January 09, 2014

Brutal cold, scant sunlight, and dozens of legislatures are -- or will soon be -- back in session.

It’s January, and the case for despair is strong.

But let’s channel Pollyanna. Meteorological winter is nearly half over, daylight saving time arrives in eight weeks, and it’s likely that during the next several months, politicians in some states will enact school-choice reforms.

Education freedom doesn’t get much attention from the legacy media anymore. A plausible reason for the news blackout: Choices are proliferating.

In 1990, Milwaukee founded the nation’s first voucher program. Cleveland followed, five years later, and Arizona implemented an innovative tax-credit architecture in 1997. Progress elsewhere was slow, and discouraging. Unions spent big bucks to demonize choice. School-board members cared more about administering their fiefdoms than launching bold experiments. Press coverage was usually ignorant, and often biased.

But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that provided certain conditions are met, vouchers do not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The preexisting enemies remained, and state constitutions posed barriers, but options began to blossom nonetheless. Choice plans targeted special-education students. Arizona-style tax credits were allowed for individuals and corporations making donations to scholarship funds. Even the horrid schools in Washington, D.C. were subjected to competition.

In the 2012-13 school year, close to 250,000 kids benefitted from choice programs. In addition to Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, vouchers are available in Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. In addition to Arizona, at least one type of tax credit is offered by Rhode Island, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

The Goldwater Institute recently examined the Grand Canyon State’s three-year-old Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. “With a savings account,” wrote Jonathan Butcher, the think tank’s education director, “parents can choose from a wide variety of online classes, personal tutors, educational therapies, textbooks, and private schools. In fact, parents do not have to send their children to private school at all. … They can use a combination of homeschool lessons, virtual school classes, and individual public school classes.”

Initially, only special-needs children who attended government schools the previous year were granted access to education savings accounts. Eligibility has been expanded, Butcher explained, “to include children from public schools that earned a ‘D’ or ‘F’ on the state report card system, children adopted from Arizona’s foster care system, [and] children of parents who are active-duty members of the U.S. military.” More than 20 percent of the state’s pupils can now participate in the program. And in anticipation of a favorable ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court, the Institute is working with State Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale) to permit savings accounts for all low-income households.

School choice improves student performance and lightens taxpayers’ burdens. But in time, its greatest contribution may be the doubt it sows.

For over a century, Americans have thought of K-12 education as a government function. They’ve let politicians (i.e., school-board members) oversee bureaucracies (i.e., school districts) funded by public subsidies (i.e., tax revenue) direct the learning process. The results, a gutsy state legislator from Utah noted last year, have been calamitous: “Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system. As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness.”

Dereliction and dependency don’t come cheap. At a price of just under $600 billion in 2011 -- credible analysts think the estimate is far too low -- government-run primary and secondary schools consume an alarmingly large, always-growing share of America’s wealth.

Choice, in all its forms, reverses the trend. It doesn’t get politicians and bureaucrats out of education, but it relinquishes a fair degree of control. Choice prompts parents to consider whether the school assigned to their child offers the best match. Maybe there are better alternatives, and perhaps -- this might sound crazy, but go with it -- government does not know what’s best.

Legislatures, abetted by governors, will do oodles of damage this year. They’ll impose tax hikes, threaten civil liberties, reward public-employee unions, embrace junk-science regulations, and continue to implement Obamacare. And they’ll surely perpetuate disastrous education policies, from “universal preschool” to boosting spending.

But in some states, choice measures will advance -- and every education-freedom victory draws the nation closer to the imperative separation of school and state.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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