Education

Now Is the Time to Advance School-Choice Policy

(dolgachov/Getty Images)
A proposal from two Senate Republicans would bolster Americans’ education options during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Senators Tim Scott (R., S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) have teamed up to offer a bill that would redirect some coronavirus-relief funding to school-choice programs, so families could continue sending their children to the schools that are best for them even during the pandemic and recession.

The School Choice Now Act — which has the support of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — would repurpose some of the emergency education-relief funding currently included in the CARES Act, which already provides aid to state education departments and local school districts. Under the bill, 10 percent of that funding would go to grants that states could use to fund scholarship organizations, which offer families “direct educational assistance” to cover private-school tuition or other educational expenses, such as the costs of homeschooling.

The aid would be available to states with tax-credit scholarship programs as well as to states without them. The former would be required to allot subgrants to scholarship groups within the first 30 days of receiving federal aid, whereas the latter would have 60 days to do so. After receiving those subgrants, scholarship organizations would be required to use 95 percent of the funding to offer scholarships to qualifying elementary- and secondary-school students.

In addition to these temporary funding measures to address the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the bill would establish a permanent, federal tax-credit scholarship program, a proposal that the Trump administration — DeVos in particular — has been backing for years. The program would offer federal taxpayers dollar-for-dollar tax credits for any contributions they make to scholarship-granting organizations, with a cap of $5 billion per year on the program.

The proposal is an admirable effort to address a crisis that’s unfolding across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has only exacerbated financial problems that private, often religious schools were already facing. According to the Cato Institute, more than 100 private schools have announced permanent closures as a result of the economic fallout from the virus.

As school-choice policy expert Michael McShane notes in Forbes, “those schools enrolled a total of 16,339 students, many of whom will be returning to public schools at an estimated cost to the public of more than $250 million,” even as public-school districts are taking an enormous financial hit from the virus.

Meanwhile, at least 60 Catholic schools are slated to permanently close their doors because of COVID-19 and the recession. The closures will have severe ramifications, as Nicole Stelle Garnett has explained in great detail in the latest issue of City Journal.

But even as Republicans aim to help families access better educational options and relieve the stress on public schools, top Democrats are busy frustrating those efforts. For instance, in the recent set of policy recommendations rolled out in conjunction with Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden calls for the total elimination of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C. Just last week, DeVos announced that the Education Department is set to award the program a minimum of $85 million over the coming five years; under Biden’s administration, that program would disappear entirely.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial board has observed:

Nearly 98% of students with [D.C.] Opportunity Scholarships graduate from high school, compared with 69% of D.C. public school students. Some 86% go onto college, while more than 90% of scholarship recipients are black or Hispanic, and the average family income is less than $27,000 a year. . . . It takes a special political animus to kill scholarships for poor minorities while proposing literally trillions of dollars in new spending on countless other programs.

School choice is a key policy area in which Republicans are much more in sync with the views of most Americans, including minorities, than are Democrats. According to a survey this spring from the American Federation for Children, most nonwhite families say they support school choice, including 67 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Hispanics.

The same poll found that half of African Americans said they consider themselves more likely to homeschool after the lockdowns end, the highest percentage of any racial demographic aside from Asian Americans. Meanwhile, blacks and Hispanics are the most likely of any demographic to support a federal tax-credit scholarship program; close to three-quarters of each group says they’d back such a plan.

Republicans are smart to prioritize policies that would expand school choice during this time of crisis. For a host of reasons, the least of which is sheer political calculation, Democrats would be wise to help them.

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