Back to School, With More Choice

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Thu, Sep 3 - 12:41 pm EDT | 11 months ago by
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    Corridors of Power - Educational Choices

    As summer winds down and Labor Day approaches, families across the country are engaged in the familiar ritual of sending their kids back to school. For too many, what should be a time of optimism and renewal is permeated by a sense of dread as children are herded into schools that, by all objective measures, have failed them. Even in schools that perform well on paper, there are kids stuck in situations where their educational needs aren’t being met; burdened by a bureaucracy that often shackles teachers and students alike.

    While the tragedy of an education system that under-serves children with diverse needs demands more attention, the good news is that innovative policies are increasingly disrupting traditional models. For too long, public education has been built around forcing students into a state-delineated district, offering families very few if any alternatives. That is finally starting to change in earnest.

    As many on the Right are fond of saying, each of our fifty states is its own “laboratory of democracy,” where policies can be tested and, if successful, implemented by lawmakers in other parts of the country. One such example in the realm of school choice is the New Orleans model. Born out of the tragedy surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the ten-year anniversary of which was recently marked, the city moved to an all-charter system in the wake of destruction that prevented the re-opening of the city’s traditional public schools.

    A full sixty-two percent of schools that were unable to operate due to storm damage had been designated as failing prior to Katrina. But what was unclear at the time was how incredible progress would be made in the wake of unthinkable tragedy. As Jonathan Alter wrote at The Daily Beast, “The results in New Orleans are impressive. Over the last decade, graduation rates have surged from 54 percent to 73 percent, and college enrollment after graduation from 37 percent to 59 percent.” As Alter further noted, the number of failing schools in New Orleans has been reduced to a mere 6 percent; a drastic improvement in a period of ten years.

    While the success in New Orleans is inspiring, it sprung from a desperate urgency not felt in school districts across the country. Change comes slower when families are suffering silently and the spotlight that collective tragedy brings is nowhere to be seen. Although reforms are taking hold in towns, counties, and states throughout the nation, there’s still a near-infinite amount of creative destruction required to pull America’s educational system out of the monopolistic dark ages it has long lived in.

    As Mary Tilloston recently wrote at The Federalist, “Arizona pioneered an unusual school-choice law called education savings accounts (ESAs), which deposits a child’s state education dollars into a bank account with a debit card parents control.” This reform mirrors the concept behind health savings accounts (HSAs), which empower people to make their own cost and need conscious medical decisions; adding an element of market competition to an otherwise highly regulated industry.

    Tilloston noted that many observers have deemed this type of program a second-generation school choice effort. “Four years into ESAs’ arrival, five states now offer them. Proponents have dubbed them ‘school choice 2.0’ because they drastically expand the voucher concept by ‘unbundling’ education, or allowing parents to customize each component rather than merely turning over one check to one school at the beginning of the year,” said Tilloston. This has given families, especially those with children who have suffered academically or socially, a new lease on life.

    Nevada, the newest state to offer ESAs, has garnered a lot of attention due to the expansive nature of its program. As Tilloston explained, “What had everyone talking when Nevada’s ESA program initially passed was its near-universal eligibility. Most school-choice programs are limited to specific demographics—students from low-income families, students with disabilities, students otherwise required to attend schools the state has labeled as ‘failing’. Nevada’s program is open to all public-school students.” This has started to upend the traditional public school model, and countless parents are thankful for the a la carte educational options their children now have access to.

    Despite myriad examples of success however, there are many still resistant to change. Opponents of challenging the traditional system often make the argument that they oppose public money going toward private institutions; particularly religious ones. This is why the American Civil LIberties Union (ACLU) recently teamed up with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to mount a legal challenge against Nevada’s new, extremely expansive ESA program.

    But as Tilloston pointed out, you don’t hear the ACLU railing against Medicaid patients receiving care at hospitals with religious affiliations. Nor is there an outcry against the purchasing of kosher or halal food with SNAP benefits. The logic used in this case is very narrow in scope, and appears to be a strong example of selective outrage deployed to protect a longstanding state-centric model.

    As Tim Keller, a lawyer at the Institute For Justice who is defending the Nevada law said, “Not one dollar that is deposited into an education savings account is set aside for any particular use, and it is the free and independent choice of parents who use those benefits that breaks the circuit between church and state.”

    Like the government-led crusades against sharing economy technologies such as Uber, this opposition appears to be an example of individuals, who have long benefitted from a government monopoly, resistant to changes that would squeeze them out; even if said changes benefit the people they allegedly serve. Ultimately, bottom-up innovations that put parents in change of their children’s educational destinies have empowered countless families who otherwise lacked hope.

    It’s unconscionable that groups like the ACLU would try to rob children like Daniel Reyes of Nevada of the education they deserve simply because their access to it was born out of a model they have an ideological opposition to. Instead of protecting government unions and monopolistic bureaucrats, individuals on the Left ought to embrace the very “choice” you so often hear them express support for in other arenas. It’s long past time to elevate diverse educational options over outdated government-sanctioned monopolies.

    Photo by danielfela / Getty Images

    Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.

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