Bring on the education savings accounts. In March, Florida passed a comprehensive school choice framework, hot on the heels of Iowa and Utah, offering parents increased choice and flexibility with how earmarked education dollars are spent. That bottled potential will soon be unleashed in Arkansas, and odds look good for Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Over half of states have at least some similar program, though usually for a small fraction of students.
Education savings accounts (ESA) are tax-deductible scholarship accounts which separate taxpayer funding for education from government delivery of schools. Food stamp recipients aren’t assigned a grocery store, nor a diet plan. College students given Pell Grants aren’t assigned a local state university, much less a major. We don’t eliminate individual choice and autonomy for those who rely on subsidies. ESAs make it possible for public investment to fund all students, not one system.
A similar bill failed last week in Georgia. The debate about “The Georgia Promise Scholarship Act” made national headlines after State Rep. Lydia Glaize, D-District 67, said out loud what many school choice critics believe, but know better than to openly confirm. She is to be commended for her honesty, up to a point, and for pulling back the mask of deniability. Her remarks are telling:
I see access as a problem. I see parents being able to direct their child’s education and they [are] already in the lower 25-percentile, meaning a lot of those parents did not finish high school — could not finish their own education. I am extremely concerned that we would put money in their hands and that entire piece of life in the hands of parents who are not qualified to make those decisions.
This patronizing paternalism is common among opponents of school choice. They treat parents with the same disdain with which they often view students. Rep. Glaize thinks educational bureaucrats — who routinely adhere to politically popular methods that ignore how children actually learn — should be entitled to choose what and how children learn, even over the objections of those children’s parents.
Georgia’s proposed choice program would have allowed parents to direct $6,000 — just over half of the state spending allotted to each student — to non-government-run education alternatives. Families eligible for vouchers in Georgia were exclusively those whom the zoned school system had already failed (the bottom 25 percent of school performance). By requirement, eligible kids are in the worst schools, and Glaize thinks those kids, specifically, should be locked in right where they are.
Glaize refers to parents who “didn’t finish high school,” as if that were entirely their own failing, rather than clear evidence that zoned schools routinely rob people of their potential. Your judgment as a parent is inferior to hers, she reasons — otherwise you wouldn’t still be poor. Never mind that parents who didn’t graduate are most likely to have attended those same ill-performing schools, and may have a crystal-clear understanding of why those schools won’t position the next generation for success, either.
Who else knows that Georgia’s public schools aren’t the best choice for kids? Representative Glaize. All four of her own children graduated from private schools. She wasn’t going to let her kids be stuck in government-run schools, because, as she said in other remarks, she “could afford to pay” for something better. But the children of the poor and stupid, as Glaize and her colleagues see them (you? us?), shouldn’t have access to the money the state set aside for the education of our children. If you can’t afford to pay for the private school that’s best for your children, on top of paying your taxes for public schools that don’t work, then you don’t get access to higher-quality education.
Atlanta Democrat Meisha Mainor, the only Democrat to break with her party and vote for Georgia’s scholarship bill, told one outlet she owes much of her educational opportunity to her mother’s willingness to lie about their address to get her into a better school. “I’m voting yes on this for my district… what this bill does is give people … in very unfavorable positions another choice. So I’m in support of it because I am that child.” Days later, establishment Democrats threatened to run someone else for her seat.
Intergenerational poverty and loss of potential are perfectly predictable outcomes of schools funded by property taxes. If your parents lived in a wealthier area, you were likely to go to a “good public school.” You were more likely to graduate (even if you needed extra support) and you earn more money as an adult. Then you can buy a house or rent property inside a more-expensive district with a good public school for your children (the premium on a house in a top-performing district is, on average, $175,000 more, roughly the same cost as twelve years of private school). If your parents couldn’t afford to reside in such a place, or send you to a better school, you’re likely to be stuck in the same opportunity gap yourself, and so are your children.
A bigger budget doesn’t guarantee better outcomes in a public district, but it’s heavily correlated, not least because people with other advantages (wealth, college degrees, two-parent households) move into and support wealthier, higher-performing school districts.
Organized opposition to school choice comes from teacher’s unions, who see clearly that once families are given an equal chance to be free of government-run schools, they won’t return. Rather than seeing that as an indictment of zoned schools (which parents will abandon at the earliest opportunity), unions have doubled down on the idea that they alone should own public investment in education.
If public schools have to compete for students and funds, the criticisms inadvertently confirm, they’ll fail. But many schools and children are already failing now.
State-level spending on public schools has increased 34 percent over the past twenty years. Most of those increases have focused on the least-wealthy schools and students, with no appreciable gains in achievement. Those responsible for squandering that investment should be worried about alternatives entering the education space — but not because they’ll lose money.
Even when ESA bills also include big budget boosts for public schools and pay raises for teachers (as in Arkansas and Maryland) unions still protest. Regardless of earmarked increases, repeated studies show that ESA availability financially strengthens public schools.
Public school staff sometimes decry sending tax money to private schools with “no accountability and no standards,” while ignoring the constant, unaccountable underperformance of government-run education. When failure is acknowledged, the call isn’t for defunding, but for “additional support,” with more taxpayer investment “to ensure they have the resources and support necessary for academic recovery.”
Under the current, assigned, zoned-school model, individual kids’ opportunities and social mobility are heavily predicted by their zip code. By freeing kids’ educational outcomes from the anchor of where their parents can afford to live, ESAs level the playing field, with a lifetime of positive consequences.
School choice will continue to be a battle across the nation, because some special interests have been given control over millions of children and billions of dollars, and they won’t give that power up without a fight. People who already have options, like Rep. Glaize, will continue to do what’s best for their own children while blocking that option for everyone else. After all, you can’t be trusted.
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