The Trump Administration’s Bold New School-Choice Plan

Students exit a bus at Venice High School in Los Angeles, Calif., December 2015. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
The Education Freedom Scholarship program proposed by Betsy DeVos and the administration’s congressional allies would be a huge step in the right direction.

American parents are demanding more and better K–12 options, and they deserve the freedom to choose the best educational environment for their children.

While most of the K–12 educational-funding and -policy decisions are appropriately housed in the states, an innovative new policy idea would allow the federal government to play a constructive role in expanding educational opportunity in America. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unveiled a proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships, with corresponding legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne. The plan would invest $5 billion annually in America’s students by allowing individuals and businesses to make contributions to in-state, non-profit Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that provide scholarships to students. Contributors would receive a non‐refundable, dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit in return for their donations. No contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of their contribution, and not a single dollar would be taken away from public schools and the students who attend them.

The plan mandates that scholarships must be used for an individual student’s elementary or secondary education, or for their career and technical education. Importantly, the plan’s implementation — including governance of SGOs, education providers, and education expenses as well as student-eligibility decisions — would be left to each state that chooses to participate. The plan would require states to distribute at least 90 percent of the funds as scholarships. Other than that, everything else about the program would be left up to each state.

To be clear, this legislation would not create a new federal program. No state or SGO would be forced to participate, and no family would be forced to accept a scholarship. The legislation respects federalism, the autonomy of parents and education providers, and the appropriate role of the states in K–12 education. It leverages the tax code in an innovative way to facilitate greater educational opportunity, and ultimately greater economic benefit for millions of students.

Why is this legislation needed? Our nation’s K–12 system is denying too many children access to a high-quality education; access to such an education is a moral and economic imperative; and school choice is overwhelmingly supported by voters and it works.

There are thousands of outstanding traditional public schools with fantastic teachers delivering a great education to students. But there are also millions of children throughout our country assigned to public schools that are not meeting their individual learning needs. According to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less than 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading and math, and nearly 30 percent are scoring below a basic level. Fewer than 30 percent of young people today are eligible for military service owing in part to “inadequate education.”

Because the K–12 system is leaving so many children behind, voters are demanding more and better options. According to a January 2019 Beck Research poll commissioned by the American Federation for Children, 67 percent of likely voters support school choice. This includes of 80 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, 67 percent of African Americans, 73 percent of Latinos, and 75 percent of Millennials. An even higher overall percentage of voters — 69 percent — support a federal K–12 tax-credit scholarship.

True school choice means giving parents the full range of K–12 options for their children, including private school, the most maligned of those options among opponents of choice, despite years of research showing that it works for students. The Urban Institute recently released a second study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves more than 100,000 lower-income students, 68 percent of whom are African American or Hispanic. According to the study, students in the program are far more likely to enroll in and persevere through college than their public-school peers. Depending on their length of time in the program, scholarship students are up to 99 percent more likely to enroll in college, and up to 56 percent more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree.

There is simply no question that access to the best learning environment for every child will improve educational outcomes across the board. There is also no question that this is a moral and economic imperative. The government tells us we have an 84.6 percent public-high-school-graduation rate. What is not well known is that we spend more than $7 billion annually on remedial education for high-school graduates, and untold billions more incarcerating teens and adults who never learned to read. Why should any family in this nation be told that it has to wait five or ten years for its assigned school to improve, or be forced to rely on a bouncing lottery ball to see if its kids can go to the school that best meets their needs?

Education Freedom Scholarships are not a silver bullet for what ails our educational system. But they would facilitate a much-needed expansion of educational choice and opportunity for America’s families and students. They’d give states wide latitude to expand students’ access to a variety of educational opportunities, including advanced, remedial, and elective courses; private and home education; tutoring; educational therapy; concurrent and dual enrollment; apprenticeships; industry certifications; summer and after-school education programs; transportation; and more.

The administration’s plan is an unprecedented opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together and allow states to directly empower families with greater educational freedom and choice. It should be supported by every lawmaker with a desire to put families and their children first.

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

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