Dear Education-Reform Advocates: Go Big and Bold on School Choice

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A defense of the federal education tax credit

My friend Lindsey Burke from the Heritage Foundation is off base regarding a federal education tax credit and the tremendous benefit it could have for millions of children across the country.

The fact is, policy papers can’t withstand contact with policymakers. Groups on the ground doing the difficult work of building coalitions to pass legislation, engaging in elections to create and defend school-choice-friendly legislative bodies, and making parents aware of their educational options understand that strict allegiance to the policy paper doesn’t get the job done.

The only aim for those of us fighting to expand school choice and supporting a federal education tax credit is to give a lot more children access to the school of their parents’ choice. Millions of struggling low-income and middle-class parents around the country are desperately seeking more and better educational options. These families can’t afford to wait for their neighborhood school to improve or for some larger agenda to be achieved. For them, greater educational choice is an urgent need right now.

Nobody disputes that K–12 education is a state and local issue. However, suggesting that a federal education tax credit is unconstitutional is something we would normally hear from the teachers’ unions that are vehemently opposed to school choice. Saying that it would lather regulations on states and schools or homogenize the private-choice sector is like screaming fire in a crowded theater when there’s no smoke. A federal education tax credit would not be a federal program, no matter how anyone tries to spin it. Education secretary Betsy DeVos has said that the administration has no intention of imposing anything on states — a view the majority in Congress shares — making it clear that the feds won’t be doing any regulating of private schools, which is a state responsibility. In addition, corporate and individual charitable contributions to in-state nonprofits that provide scholarships to children are private money contributed voluntarily by taxpayers who would receive a federal tax credit.

The suggestion that faith-based schools could not participate in a federal education tax credit is also inaccurate. No school-choice advocate or pro-school-choice policymaker would ever support a proposal that prevented faith-based schools from participating or would require private schools to change how they operate. Any federal education tax credit would absolutely allow faith-based schools to participate, as they do now in every state, through a private-school choice program.

These schools are successfully educating millions of children every day. As two decades of research has shown, children participating in a private-choice program — most are in faith-based schools — are graduating and going on to college at much higher rates than do their peers at traditional public schools.

Saying that the administration should limit its support for school choice to select groups of children is no better than the Obama administration saying that choice in K–12 education should be limited to public schools. There are children in every part of this country who want and deserve better educational options, and parents should have the power to choose the educational environment that best meets their child’s needs. A well-designed federal education tax credit would empower parents and create educational opportunity for children. It would not, contrary to what Ms. Burke suggests, create a new and regulation-laden federal program.

Any federal education tax credit would absolutely allow faith-based schools to participate, as they do now in every state, through a private-school choice program.

The real battle is between those who oppose choice in education and those who see choice as an essential component of a more innovative and successful 21st-century K–12 model. Full choice and public funding are embraced in higher education and pre-K. Why the continued resistance to full choice in K–12 education?

What is public education really about? Why should it matter whether a child is in a traditional public school, private school, magnet school, charter school, home school, or personalized blend of learning environments? Opponents of school choice make wild and unsubstantiated claims that private choice doesn’t work. They tell us that only district-sponsored and heavily regulated charter schools should be allowed to educate kids. We believe that what really matters is giving every child, regardless of income or family circumstance, access to a high-quality education freely chosen by his or her parents.

Imagine how the lives of millions more children can be helped by a great education attained through a federal education tax credit. Imagine the economic benefit to our nation from another million children graduating high school and going to college — a result that private-school choice programs have proven they can produce. Imagine an improvement in surrounding public schools as a result of greater choice. The greatest form of local control in education is giving the parents the power to choose the best learning environment for their child. This used to be a universally recognized and supported idea among education reformers. Rather than denounce the opportunity to facilitate an expansion of school choice, reformers should embrace the opportunity to go big and bold.


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John Schilling is president of the American Federation for Children, the nation’s largest school-choice advocacy group.


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