'Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are right: It is time to empower parents and embrace school vouchers'

'Innovation and change in education are too often viewed as the enemy: now is the time for a school choice revolution to allow students to go to schools that best meet their needs'

Robert C. Enlow

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We make small choices every day like what to eat for breakfast and which television station to watch. We also make more important and long-term choices including where we live, what we do for a living and how we raise our families.

If someone tried to tell us we had to purchase a certain kind of car because the car company needed to ensure a steady revenue stream, we would be confused and maybe a bit put off. And if someone forced us, for example, to attend a nearby place of worship simply because of its proximity to where we live, not its principles, we would be outraged.

Yet there exists a part of American life where individual choice is actively discouraged, particularly if you are poor, and where innovation and change are often viewed as the enemy because they would disrupt the way things have always been done.

That’s how the American K-12 education system has operated for far too long, leaving generations of students, many of them low-income, with limited opportunity to find the schooling options that best meet their needs.

Since 1996, our organization, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, has fought to educate the public on the need for greater educational freedom and also lobbied to enact programs at the state level that give students more and better options.

Educational choice can take many forms, including traditional public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, home schooling and online education, as well as myriad forms we haven’t even thought of yet. The critical point here is that all the programs that have been enacted empower parents to use the funding set aside for them by the government to attend whatever educational setting works best their children, including private schools.

Private school popularity

The reason is a simple matter of supply and demand. In every national survey we’ve ever conducted, parents overwhelmingly tell us that they would prefer to send their child to a private school than a public one if they could afford to. Parents want a much more diverse set of educational choices. Yet our most recent poll found that 83 percent of students attend public district schools, but only 28 percent of parents say that’s their preference.

EdChoice is driven by a simple concept: Government has a responsibility to fund K-12 education for every child but no right to force families to spend those funds only in government-run schools. The family should determine how and where that money is spent. What matters isn’t the type of school but whether those families are free to choose, not simply sentenced to a one-size-fits-all school based on what neighborhood they live in or their income level.

The modern idea of educational choice has been around since 1955, but it’s only been in the past decade that we’ve seen incredible growth in school choice programs at the state level. There are now more than 60 school choice programs in America, operating in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and nearly half a million American students have used a voucher or voucher-like program to find a school that meets their needs.

Why have we seen this level of growth? Because parents know that no two kids are the same, and they want the ability to find the best schooling option for each child. The more parents and students are empowered to choose, the more they want choice.

In Indiana, where the nation’s largest school voucher program operates, a survey of private school parents found that 53 percent were somewhat or very satisfied with their previous schools, but 93 percent were somewhat or very satisfied with their current choice schools.

What’s more, we know it’s producing positive results in classrooms and communities.

Impact of school choice

EdChoice recently compiled the results of 100 empirical school choice studies into a report showing educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, save taxpayers millions, reduce segregation in schools and improve students’ civic values, including their likelihood to vote or volunteer. One study even showed that school choice reduces the chance that students will engage in criminal activity after graduation.

There are those who criticize our efforts.

They say vouchers drain valuable resources from traditional public schools. But the reality is that when a student leaves one public school for another public school, the dollars already follow that student. So, why shouldn’t the money follow a student to all educational environments, including private schools? This is what happens at the university level in America, and it should be what happens in the K-12 realm.

Simply put, a school is not entitled to funding unless it accompanies a student seeking an education. Families know better than bureaucrats what’s best for their kids.

Unlike those who oppose our efforts, we’re honest about where we need to work harder. 

By now, we had hoped there would be more educational choice programs in America and that those programs would have created a higher demand for private school seats and a higher number of seats available. That hasn’t happened yet, but we’re not giving up.

The role of Trump and DeVos

That’s where President-elect Trump and Betsy DeVos, the longtime school choice advocate he’s nominated to lead the U.S. Department of Education, can play a huge role.

Trump is an unabashed supporter of educational choice, and while we’ll continue to work primarily at the state level to pass new programs that directly help students, there are a few things this administration can do to support families federally.

First, they can push to fully fund and expand the voucher program in Washington, D.C., which falls under federal purview and has helped thousands of students find a better fit than the District’s chronically underperforming public school system.

They also can act immediately to reduce the regulatory burden the U.S. Department of Education places on all schools, not just those that are part of educational choice programs. Teachers and school leaders should be spending time focused on kids, not piles of paperwork.

Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos can continue to champion this issue from the bully pulpit of the White House. Families need to have options. Once they do, they need to be empowered to use them. And until the American K-12 education system provides all families with quality choices and control over their school funding, we’ll continue to push for change.

Robert C. Enlow is president and CEO of campaign group EdChoice

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Robert C. Enlow

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