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School Choice Rising

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from the magazine

School Choice Rising

Parental discontent with public education has sparked new momentum for alternatives. Summer 2022
Education

For school-choice supporters, 2011 is remembered as a banner year that reshaped education policy. It began with a newly installed Republican-led House of Representatives voting to reinstate Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which congressional Democrats had worked to kill. A flurry of new state initiatives followed, from higher charter school caps to scholarship programs for kids leaving public schools. Behind the burst of activity was a dramatic change in leadership in some states after the 2009 and 2010 gubernatorial elections, with school-choice-supporting Republicans gaining a net of seven governors’ seats. States with new governors, including Wisconsin, Florida, and Oklahoma, accounted for half of school-choice legislation passed that year.

It has taken a decade and then a pandemic for the school-choice movement to surpass 2011’s achievements. Widespread public school closures and harsh health mandates in response to Covid-19—including compulsory masking of students—angered many parents, as did school districts adopting unpopular programs inspired by critical race theory, or CRT. One result: a bonanza of new choice legislation in 2021. In all, 18 states (six more than in 2011) either instituted school-choice programs for the first time or expanded offerings. Some 3.6 million students nationwide gained potential access to more education options, thanks to these moves. Several states widened initiatives originally designed to help lower-income children so that middle-class kids could also take advantage of them—an illustration of how disillusionment with public schools during the pandemic extended beyond failing urban districts. Homeschooling also received a boost in some states.

The broadening discontent may mark a decisive change for school choice. Far from dissipating after last year’s activity, the momentum seems to be building. Already in 2022, state legislators around the country have sought to bring scholarships or charter schools into their state or to boost funding of existing programs. More radical proposals, like breaking troubled districts into smaller groups of charter schools, are also under consideration. Recent polls show support rising, even in Democratic-leaning states, for choice initiatives like education savings accounts (ESAs), tax credits for donors to scholarship programs, vouchers for special-education students, and charter schools.

And the unexpected victory in Virginia last November of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who tapped into parents’ opposition to CRT in schools, has helped propel education reform as an election issue in other states this fall. “In Florida, we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory,” Governor Ron DeSantis, up for reelection this year, said in April. “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”

The stakes in November are significant, with 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative seats up for grabs. Victories by reform advocates might initiate even more far-reaching efforts in 2023. No wonder optimism among choice backers has rarely been higher.

Economist Milton Friedman originally proposed the idea of school choice in a 1955 paper, arguing that the current model for government-financed and administered public education concentrated too much power in the public sector, leading inevitably to an ineffective monopoly. He suggested a dramatic way to stave off decline: give money to parents and let them choose where to send their children to school. Over the years, as the performance of public schools, especially in urban districts serving low-income kids, declined, Friedman’s criticism intensified. In a 1995 Washington Post essay, he decried a system that produced “dismal results: some relatively good government schools in high-income suburbs and communities; very poor government schools in our inner cities.” Mounting support for school choice, he observed, suggested a tide that only the educational bureaucracy was holding back.

In some early forms, school choice was bipartisan. One of the movement’s early signature programs, vouchers introduced in Milwaukee in 1990, was the work of Democratic mayor John Norquist and Wisconsin Republican governor Tommy Thompson. Democrat Cory Booker won a 2006 Newark mayoral election stumping for alternatives to the city’s awful public schools. After Republican Chris Christie won New Jersey’s governorship in 2009, he worked with Booker to grow the number of charter schools in that city. In his 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama promised to double the federal money allocated for charters under President George W. Bush.

Over time, that bipartisanship faded. One sign of a widening division emerged after Obama became president. He increased funding for charters modestly, but the support fell well short of his initial promises. Obama also backed away from extending the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, begun by his Republican predecessor Bush, which many of Obama’s Democratic allies, including teachers’ unions, opposed. The program, funding scholarships at private schools for some 2,000 low-income kids, was on the verge of being phased out by Obama, though it had proved so popular that its waiting list numbered some 9,000 students. But the 2010 midterm elections saved it, as Republicans, with a new majority in Congress, and a small group of Democrats, led by Senator Joe Lieberman, voted to renew the scholarships.

That victory, combined with state election results, energized the school-choice movement. Advocates in Wisconsin and around the nation heavily backed Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker in his 2010 bid to become governor of the state. Opponents poured money into the campaign of Walker’s adversary, Democratic Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. After Walker won with nearly 53 percent of the vote, he quickly made national headlines in introducing Act 10, legislation that allowed employees in Wisconsin to opt out of unions and that took away the right of government labor groups to bargain collectively over wages and benefits. Almost immediately, public-sector union membership slumped in Wisconsin, shrinking from nearly 15 percent of all government workers to just 8 percent—in the process, cutting the power of labor groups, including the formidable Wisconsin teachers’ union.

Following that victory, in 2011, Walker signed legislation expanding the 20-year-old Milwaukee choice program, opening it to all students in the district and introducing a similar voucher plan in Racine. Walker would keep plugging away at school choice—in 2013, for instance, making vouchers available to qualifying families of students around the state. The number of students benefiting from that effort has grown from 511 in 2014 to more than 14,500 today.

“The number of children using ESAs, government scholarship programs, and vouchers more than tripled over ten years.”

Business executive Rick Scott similarly made school choice a key part of his campaign to win Florida’s 2010 gubernatorial election, after Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist declined to seek reelection. “I want to offer parents a menu of options for their children, including but not limited to charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and virtual schools,” Scott said. “I want to create an educational program that will allow parents to get creative in how to meet the distinctive needs of their children.” Winning in a close, contentious race, Scott signed several key pieces of education legislation during his first year in office—increasing the number of special-education vouchers, making it easier for students from failing high schools to transfer to new schools, and raising the number of charter schools. He added other reforms in ensuing years, making Florida a school-choice leader.

In Oklahoma, Republican Mary Fallin made history in 2010, becoming the state’s first female governor. One of her first-year victories was a law creating scholarships to private schools for low-income students, via a tax-credit program. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels, in his third year in office, signed in 2011 what may have been the nation’s most sweeping school-choice legislation—removing the state cap on charter schools, enabling universities in Indiana to authorize charters, and establishing vouchers to help low- and middle-income students finance their education at private schools.

Arizona Republican governor Jan Brewer, meantime, signed a measure creating ESAs for special-needs students—an idea that subsequently spread to other states, including Ohio, where Governor John Kasich doubled the size of the state’s choice scholarship program and boosted the money that low-income students in Cleveland could tap for scholarships and tutoring. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal, who had expanded vouchers and tuition tax-credit programs earlier in his administration, added a scholarship-choice initiative for special-needs kids in 2011.

After 2011, the population of students taking advantage of school choice would rise significantly. The number of children using ESAs, government scholarship programs, and vouchers more than tripled over ten years, from 200,000 in 2011 to 621,000 today. By 2021, ESAs were providing students with some $3.2 billion annually to spend on their K–12 education, and tax-credit scholarship initiatives distributed nearly $3 billion more.

But this growth has run into limits. Until the pandemic, the most credible argument for school choice remained that it was a way to help children from low-income families or with special needs in failing districts. Enthusiasm for more universal programs was less strong in many places. Even in Republican-leaning states, skeptics included otherwise-conservative legislators from rural districts, who sometimes opposed educational choice on the grounds that too few alternative schools existed in their districts. Moreover, as the Democratic Party under Obama, and then during the Trump years, moved further leftward, opposition to school-choice programs grew intransigent; bipartisanship, such as it was, disappeared. An American Enterprise Institute analysis of some 70 state programs found that Republicans provided 2,844 votes to pass choice bills, with Democrats voting for them just 381 times. While Democrats have never been the main drivers of alternatives to centralized public school education, many choice programs are passed today without any help from the party. That makes new legislative victories for the GOP the most likely path for future expansion of educational choice.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis (shown here signing a 2019 bill to create a new voucher program) has been a leader in pushing for parents’ educational rights, from barring the use of critical race theory in schools to expanding scholarships for poor children. (LYNNE SLADKY/AP PHOTO)

The pandemic proved a school-choice accelerant. When Covid hit, schools were among the institutions that officials shut down first, largely because we knew so little about the virus, how it spread, and who was most vulnerable. Fairly quickly, however, it became clear that children were among the least affected and that spread was not common in schools. In Europe, many school systems reopened in late spring 2020, just months after the virus struck. In America, openings were slower to happen. A late 2021 UNESCO survey estimated that France had closed its schools for only 12 weeks over the previous two years. In Spain, the number was 15 weeks; in the U.K., schools shut down for 27 weeks, and in Germany for 38. American schools had closed for 71 weeks on average.

As time wore on, many American parents also got a lesson in the power of teachers’ unions to dictate policy. School closures varied considerably by district and by state; one audit found that states with some of the least amount of in-person instruction during the pandemic included California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—all with strong teachers’ unions. In Chicago, the teachers’ union made national headlines by shutting down schools several times, including during the spread of the Omicron variant. Meantime, two states where unions enjoyed far less bargaining power—Texas and Florida—boasted the most in-person instruction.

Pervasive discontent with public schools manifested itself in unprecedented enrollment declines. In the school year starting in September 2020, enrollment fell 3 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—a trend that seems to have continued for a second year, according to a National Public Radio survey of major American school districts. Early reporting in California, for example, suggests that enrollment fell by 1.8 percent in the 2021–22 school year, on top of a 2.6 percent drop the previous year. Bigger transformations may be coming. Los Angeles school officials recently warned that the district faces an unprecedented 30 percent enrollment drop in the next decade, driven by demographic factors and a shift toward alternative schools.

By contrast, a Cato survey of K–12 private schools estimated that recent enrollment gains may have been as high as 7 percent. The National Alliance for Charter Schools reported a similar rise among schools that it surveyed. These numbers are no mystery. In a 2022 poll, 18 percent of parents said that they had switched schools for one of their children recently, and more than half were considering changes. More than one-third reported that the main reason they were looking elsewhere was their current school’s pandemic policies.

Lurking in that poll is another explosive detail: 21 percent of parents considering a move said that they wanted more of a say in their child’s curriculum. While that sentiment can mean many things, the issue of school curriculum took on new importance over the last two years—above all, with the rise of critical race theory. Following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May 2020, progressive educators and politicians intensified their advocacy for an instructional approach that teaches kids that systemic racism is pervasive in the United States and that whites enjoy special privileges that impede the advancement of other racial groups.

A backlash ensued. In Loudoun County, Virginia, parents showed up at a board of education meeting to decry the racialized pedagogy. “You are now training our children to be social justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history,” one Chinese-American mother told the board. “Growing up in Mao’s China, all this seems very familiar.” Parents sued the board, claiming that the instruction was racially discriminatory. In Wisconsin, a black retired Air Force pilot helped lead protests against CRT in schools, calling it a “pernicious ideology” and demanding curriculum transparency.

In turn, some educators and government officials reacted to the parental concerns in ways that caused even more controversy. When parents in a Missouri school district objected to racialized instruction, a district literacy coordinator encouraged teachers to hide course materials from parents. As protests spread around the country, the National School Boards Association sent the Biden administration a letter claiming that school officials were under “immediate threat.” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland then directed the FBI to investigate school protests as possible “domestic terrorism,” enraging parents. In Virginia, 2021 gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe objected to a curriculum transparency bill because “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Republican Youngkin, who supported transparency, subsequently upset McAuliffe in the November election.

“After a year and a half, almost two years, of incredibly disrupted institutional experience that was visited on almost every family in the country, you probably shouldn’t say something like ‘Parents don’t matter,’ ” Derrell Bradford, president of 50 Can, a school-choice advocacy group, observed at a Harvard conference on education policy. “There’s a lesson there about treating people poorly.”

“School curriculum has taken on new importance—above all, with the rise of critical race theory.”

What followed Covid lockdowns and curriculum fights was a burst of education legislation, marking another milestone in the choice movement. Eighteen states launched new choice programs or added to existing ones in 2021. The earlier emphasis had been on alternative schools like charters; but in 2021, legislation focused more on providing parents—including those in middle- and upper-income groups—with additional education options so that they could select those that suited them best.

Florida again took a leading role. In May 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to a Catholic high school in Hialeah to sign a bill that committed about $200 million to increased scholarships for low-income students, covering 100 percent of tuition at the school of their choice, while also raising the income cap on the program so that families making up to $100,000 a year could qualify. The state estimated that the expansion, which also exempts children of military personnel from scholarship waiting lists, would make it possible for 60,000 more kids to take advantage of the initiative.

New Hampshire illustrated the demand for such programs. Pre-pandemic, the state offered limited choice-scholarship money, funded by businesses, to low-income children; the program had a waiting list of just 30 students. Once Covid lockdowns began, that list lengthened to 800 kids. Seeing the demand, state Republicans, who had wanted to build out school-choice offerings, passed a law in June 2021 to establish ESAs, giving families making less than $79,500 a year $4,000 to $5,000 in state money, which could be used on private school instruction, homeschooling materials, or other services. By November, New Hampshire already had 1,600 applicants for the program. Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia joined New Hampshire in creating ESAs last year.

West Virginia shows how the tide has turned, post-Covid. Back in 2018 and 2019, teachers in the state mobilized to stop an expansion of charters and to vie for higher pay and better benefits. After striking in both years, they had managed, for example, to water down a charter school bill so that it sanctioned just three new schools a year—this, in one of the few states at the time with no educational choice. The union also waged campaigns against Republican state legislators who had sponsored school-choice measures, defeating two of them. But following Covid school closings and a 2020 election in which Republicans won a state legislature supermajority, lawmakers passed a bill that offers ESAs to students of all income categories. The expansive new initiative, like other ESAs, pays for tuition at private schools and includes money for tutoring and to purchase learning materials.

Last year’s successes may be a prelude to further gains. For one thing, government schools are flush with cash after the 2021 Biden stimulus provided K–12 education with an unprecedented $128 billion in federal money. That has helped mute criticisms that school-choice programs take money away from traditional public schools, leaving them cash-starved. In addition, polls suggest that Republican candidates are poised to make substantial gains in November elections—not just in Washington but in state and local races, too. That could supercharge school-choice initiatives in places where Democrats or moderate Republicans have been blocking programs.

The year has gotten off to a fast start. Alabama’s legislature in April increased funding for education scholarships by 50 percent, to $30 billion. Earlier, South Dakota lawmakers expanded the state’s tax-credit scholarships. “It seems like every Republican lawmaker is sponsoring an education bill in this General Assembly,” an Ohio newspaper quipped in March. Among other things, Buckeye State Republicans want the state’s vouchers to cover all students. Tennessee is considering a similar bill that would expand statewide a 2019 voucher program originally designed for students in Memphis and Nashville. In South Carolina, lawmakers want to use part of a budget surplus to create the state’s first vouchers. “The two things that I think are very distinct and loud that we’ve heard is that parents want a voice in their children’s education,” the head of the state’s legislative budget-writing committee said. Arizona expanded access to its state-funded scholarship program, originally designed for disabled children, to all students, allowing them to spend tax dollars on a school of their choice. In Wisconsin, Republicans have proposed breaking up the Milwaukee school system into several smaller systems. The bill is a response to a sharp drop in student performance during the pandemic.

“The last two years may turn out to be the launching point of a transformation in American education.”

The ballot box may also prove decisive this election cycle (or next) in Michigan, where school-choice supporters, backed by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, are trying to get enough signatures to place the Let Kids Learn referendum on the November ballot. DeVos and family members have contributed $400,000 to the effort, which would establish ESAs in the state.

Some individual state races will be crucial. Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has stymied Republican-led school-reform initiatives. He’s up for reelection, facing voters worried about crime, the economy, and schools. Wisconsin voters, polling suggests, strongly approve of the state’s school-choice program, so it’s no surprise that Republicans vying to run against Evers are talking about education reform. Former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, for instance, kicked off her campaign with a 30-second ad lamenting school closings and pledging to expand school choice.

Though Texas is considered one of the nation’s most conservative states, its record on school reform is modest. Advocates hope to change that by defeating Democrats and, in primaries, moderate Republicans opposed to school choice. Groups like the Texas Federation for Children, a PAC, have poured money into school-choice candidates’ campaigns. Already, in a special state-legislative election in Waxahachie, a candidate backed by choice advocates handily defeated another Republican endorsed by the local teachers’ union. The upheaval has also struck primary elections for the state board of education, where two incumbent Republicans lost to candidates viewed as more supportive of school choice.

Betsy DeVos has also waded into local battles, writing in the Fort Worth Star Telegram that Texas’s educational opportunities pale beside Florida’s: “Texas’ students felt this pain acutely during the pandemic, as many districts shut down and left students and families scrambling,” DeVos noted. “Add in concerns about how public schools are handling issues such as teachings on race and sex, and it’s even more remarkable Texas continues to leave government, not parents, in control of education.” She issued a challenge to public officials in the state, warning that parents “aren’t inclined to accept any more excuses as to why there’s a Texas-sized hole on the map of states that empower families to make the best educational choices.”

The last two school years may turn out to be the launching point of a transformational era in American education. School closures and other Covid-related measures, along with the outsize power that teachers’ unions wielded over classrooms, have drawn far more parents into the school- reform fold than ever before. No longer is public school choice an issue largely confined to poor parents in failing districts. More important, polls and interviews illustrate that many parents are upset enough to change how they vote in order to get reform. “Interviews with New Jersey voters revealed that some Democrats’ breaks from their party last fall were neither flippant nor fleeting,” the Wall Street Journal recently observed. “Many [voters] described personal struggles to stress what they viewed as the needs of their family or community over partisanship.” The next six months will tell us just how deep those new priorities are.

Top Photo: Several states have recently created education savings accounts that residents can use to finance alternatives to public schools—including homeschooling, which became more popular during Covid closures. (JOCHEN TACK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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