School choice deserves bold action to give Americans better education

Re-posting an op ed column from The Hill.

By John Schilling, Opinion Contributor

Despite an avalanche of negative press in 2017, parental choice in education remains very popular with voters. Across nearly a dozen reputable surveys last year at the national and local levels, a significant plurality of voters, and a hefty majority in some cases, expressed support for school choice.

A new national school choice poll conducted by the American Federation for Children shows that support for educational choice remains strong across the ideological spectrum and among Americans of color and millennials.

A majority of states and the District of Columbia have private school choice programs — vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts — that are educating nearly 500,000 children this school year. Last year, 36 states introduced private school choice bills, 18 of which were education savings account bills, to give families and children more educational options.

Two decades of research on private school choice programs has shown that participating students are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college. In fact, the most recent research on Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program shows that participating students are roughly 40 percent more likely to enroll in college if they have been in the program for at least four years.

Other research is equally clear on the need for a more educated workforce, and the ways in which earning a high school diploma helps students avoid the pitfalls of poverty. More Americans graduating with high school diplomas, many of whom will go onto college, will lift more families and children out of poverty and into a better life. For students, it means better jobs and higher wages. For the country, it means more people in the workforce contributing to the nation’s economic output and a higher GDP.

The strong public support and momentum for school choice over the last several years certainly explains why the teachers unions and other defenders of the education status quo have worked so hard to ramp up the attacks. There is a growing hysteria among opponents of school choice, with wild assertions that public education is somehow under assault.

The Public School Superintendents Association is so alarmed that it is responding to National School Choice Week with an “I Love Public Education” campaign. This is despite the fact that only 5 percent of the 54 million K-12 students are currently in private school choice programs or charter schools. How is only five percent exercising school choice an assault on traditional public schools?

The real concern among those who oppose parental choice in education is that continued growth of school choice threatens to disrupt a powerful status quo. This is a status quo that leaves millions of K-12 students without a quality education and unprepared for college, military service or the 21st century workforce.

With statistics showing that a student drops out of school approximately each minute, that the vast majority of 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in reading and math, and that far too many high school graduates require remediation (costing an estimated $7 billion annually), it should be crystal clear to policymakers that we need to rethink the “system” and focus instead on the needs of families and children.

Policymakers at the state level should act boldly to disrupt the status quo and ensure every child can access a quality education chosen by their parents. We urge policymakers in the 36 states who introduced bills to expand educational choice last year to listen to their constituents and push high quality legislation over the finish line.

In Washington, Congress and the administration can participate by enacting a K-12 tax credit to inspire charitable giving to nonprofits who provide private school scholarships for children in low-income and middle-class families. They can help our military families by giving their children public funding to access schools of chosen by their parents. These policies have widespread public support. According to the national school choice poll, 65 percent of voters support a federal tax credit scholarship and 78 percent support military vouchers.

School choice advocates in the states and the District of Columbia should be focused on one thing, and that is helping as many children as possible access a quality education chosen by their parents. Families and children who are trapped in low-performing schools or schools that just don’t work for them should not have their fate determined by the luck of the draw.

These kids do not have the luxury of waiting on another five-year plan to fix public schools or for the entrenched education bureaucrats to realize that the path to educational success today is not to preserve the antiquated K-12 system of yesterday. If politicians are willing to empower America’s K-12 families, it will be students and the nation that will benefit.

John Schilling is president of the American Federation for Children, the nation’s largest educational choice advocacy organization.