Since the national adoption of compulsory schooling in the late nineteenth century, state governments have overwhelmingly entrusted themselves with near-monopolistic control over K-12 education. In recent months, however, Arizona, West Virginia, Iowa, and Utah have affirmed the primacy of parental sovereignty by introducing education savings accounts (ESAs) that let state money “follow the child” for such expenses as private school tuition, tutoring, or educational materials. Several more states appear primed to pass ESA bills soon. After decades of incremental reform, what prompted this rapid shift?
The notion of shattering the government monopoly over K-12 education is neither new nor radical. Milton Friedman largely pioneered the idea in his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” in which he argued for the logic of schooling based on voluntary association rather than residential assignment. Later, the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk”—a government report that placed American education in the throes of crisis—galvanized support for school choice and fostered the birth of education reform as a bipartisan political project rather than a libertarian fantasy.
For the better part of four decades, the bipartisan education-reform movement largely staked arguments for school choice around three goals: accountability, efficiency, and social justice. An education quasi-marketplace would infuse the public education system with accountability and competition by allowing parents to vote with their feet, close persistent racial and economic achievement gaps by establishing high-performing schools in urban areas, and promote efficiency by freeing some schools from the regulatory burdens that traditionally afflict the public education system.
Outside of some small, targeted voucher programs, reform came via the establishment and expansion of charter schools. Tuition-free and publicly funded but independently operated, these institutions must receive the blessing of state regulatory bodies to open and must remain in good standing to survive. Charters represented a functional compromise between progressives, squeamish about privatization, and conservatives, who desired more expansive forms of choice. Charters meaningfully addressed the publicly professed objectives of the advocates, policy wonks, and philanthropic organizations that steered the educational-choice movement.
Compromise and bipartisanship proved untenable, however. Twenty years after George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law with a beaming Ted Kennedy standing behind him, the reform coalition met its demise. One potential explanation for the death of the bipartisan education-reform movement is simple tribalism. The logic for compromise grew increasingly tenuous as Democrats retreated on choice, while choice became a litmus-test issue for Republicans, including traditional holdouts in rural areas. Another critical factor is that conservatives have begun to conceive of school choice differently from the reformers of yesteryear. Coalition goals allowed “choice” to take the form of a limited, centrally planned affair to raise test scores in specific low-performing locales. But with growing urgency, conservatives now view expansive educational freedom as necessary for everyone, independent of test scores.
Animating this choice-for-all ethos is a major attitudinal shift among conservatives toward public education. A 2022 Gallup poll found that only 14 percent of Republicans had a “great deal” or a lot of confidence in public schools, compared with 50 percent having a “little” confidence or “none.” Some of this animosity is undoubtedly tied to Covid school closures. Union attempts to cast school-reopening advocates as racists and misogynists, extort taxpayers for reopening costs, and keep schools closed even after teachers received priority access to the Covid vaccine laid bare the extent to which unions privilege the interests of adults over those of children. Dissolving their monopoly went from desirable to necessary.
If school closures lit the spark for educational freedom, a reckoning with the depths of progressive ideological capture of public education—instigated, in part, by unfettered Zoom access to classroom instruction during school closures—fanned the flames. A 2022 YouGov survey determined that 62 percent of Republicans were “very concerned” and 22 percent “somewhat concerned” about “students being indoctrinated with liberal ideas.” That proportion exceeded the share of Republicans concerned about Covid restrictions (61 percent) or learning loss (74 percent) and registered as the principal education concern among Republican respondents. Lest anyone think this reflects more on conservatives themselves or the conservative media ecosystem than on public education, the YouGov poll found that 60 percent of independents and even one third of Democrats were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about liberal indoctrination. Public education has a wokeness problem, and parents know it.
Perhaps no district in the country illustrates the evolution on choice better than Fairfax County, Virginia. In 2021 the district dispensed a “Summer Learning Guide” to second-graders that recommended a video produced by a self-described “trans nonbinary abolitionist educator,” who says, “I feel safe when there are no police.” That same year, a school board member claimed that the observation of a moment of silence for the 9/11 attacks could be traumatic for minority students. In 2022, the district paid $455,000 to an equity consultant for nine months of work and adopted the consultant’s recommendation of “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.” In deference to the mantra, the district awards students with 50 percent credit for simply showing up; meantime, the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School failed to notify recipients of National Merit commended-student awards.
Fairfax County is a high-performing district. It would not have been an obvious beneficiary of school choice, as the education-reform coalition originally conceived of it. But parents in Fairfax County—and nationwide—now feel differently.