School Choice Moves Apace in States

(Photo: Syda Productions/Dreamstime)
The federal government should let the states lead on school choice.

While activists and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., wrangle over the federal education bureaucracy, much of the important action on school choice has been taking place in state capitals. Governors and legislatures in more than a dozen states are considering ways to give students and their families better access to quality learning opportunities that meet their individual needs.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) for elementary, high-school, and college expenses are on the leading edge of these options. Arizona lawmakers first enacted the accounts in 2011, and since that time, legislators in Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Nevada have adopted similar laws.

This year, lawmakers in Arkansas, New Hampshire, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, North Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia, to name a few, are considering similar laws.

Education savings accounts are like flexible spending accounts for health care, except that instead of depositing money into the account from your paycheck, the state government deposits your child’s share of school funding into the account (if you opt out of sending your child to public school in your district). ESAs allow parents to spend the funds on tutoring, online learning, textbooks, private-school tuition, educational therapies, and other education-related services and products.

Parents can use a combination of educational services based on what they think would best meet their child’s learning needs, with states determining the universe of eligible expenditures. Unused funds can often be rolled over from year to year and saved for college.

From 2011 to 2013, in Arizona, only children with special needs could qualify for ESAs, but eligibility has since been expanded. Today half of the participants are children previously assigned to failing schools, children in active-duty military families, adopted children, and Native American children on tribal lands. Arizona lawmakers are currently considering expanding the accounts to allow every student assigned to a public school the chance to participate.

Parents can use a combination of educational services based on what they think would best meet their child’s learning needs, with states determining the universe of eligible expenditures.

This expansion suits Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey has been at the forefront of pushing innovative ideas in the state, including support for easing regulations for ride-sharing services, and he’s already said he welcomes Uber’s self-driving cars. In his January 2017 state-of-the-state address, Ducey said he wants to eliminate 500 government rules and regulations this year alone to help businesses. Universal access to ESAs is an equally bold move.

That leadership has broader implications for national education policy. In establishing such a broad ESA option, Arizona would show Washington policymakers that, given the chance and with the right leadership, states will lead on education choice.

That’s an important reminder to a new administration whose heart is in the right place on school choice. There are school-choice policies that Education secretary Betsy DeVos, along with Congress, can pursue that are appropriate at the federal level. That includes reauthorizing and expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, expanding similar choices for military families, and creating ESAs for children attending Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. With a few exceptions, though, that’s where the federal school-choice universe should end, which is why efforts such as those in Arizona and elsewhere are so important.

Education savings accounts and other state-based solutions (such as moving toward policies that give teachers a choice as to whether they join a union, and limiting union power generally) would do more to give parents and students high-quality educational options than any new federal program, which would run the risk of regulating private schools and complicating existing state-based learning options.

The proper role for federal policymakers is to empower states to lead. Allowing states to opt out of federal programs through policies contained in the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (APLUS) Act would go a long way in making space for state-based educational-choice efforts. As governors around the country have demonstrated already this legislative session, they’re eager to get to work.

— Jonathan Butcher is the director of education policy at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. Lindsey M. Burke is the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, in Washington, D.C.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More