The core issue of the public-policy debate about school choice is not money. It’s the competing visions over who has the right and responsibility for the education and upbringing of children. The premise of the U.S. Department of Education, which was restored to a Cabinet-level department in 1979, is that the government knows best.
That is not a new idea. Speaking a year before the department was originally created in 1867, Rep. Samuel Moulton of Illinois said it would be “a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States. We want a controlling head by which the conflicting systems in the different States can be harmonized, by which there can be uniformity. … I take the high ground that every child (is) entitled to an education at the hands of somebody, and that this ought not be left to the caprice of individuals or (the) States so far as we have any power to regulate it.”
Flash forward more than 150 years. On April 7 Arizona enacted what is being hailed as “the most expansive choice program in the country”: a universal education savings account (ESA) program that will be phased in over the next few school years to include all students.
The concept behind the program is simple. Parents who don’t want to send their children to public, district or charter schools can simply inform the state of their preference, and 90 percent of the state base funding that would have gone to one of those schools is deposited into their children’s ESAs instead. That would be approximately $5,600 for each non-disabled student. Students from low-income families would receive 100 percent of the state base funding.
ESA funds may be used to pay for tuition, textbooks, online courses, tutoring, special-education therapies and other educational expenses. Parents can roll over unused funds for future educational expenses. Regular expense reporting and auditing will help ensure that parents use the money as intended.
Most important, putting parents in charge will empower them to choose not just where but how their children are educated, which will allow unprecedented customization of education.
This is a far cry from the one-size-fits-all vision animating the Department of Education. Parental choice challenges the reigning notion of who the real education experts are: it favors parents over far-off government bureaucrats. That in a nutshell is the real education debate — not money, since parental choice programs offer families options that are far less costly than public schools.
Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb exposes as smoke and mirrors the doomsday predictions that parental choice programs would “starve” public, that is, government-managed, schools. In fact, Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates that the newly enacted ESA program will save the state $3.4 million in fiscal year 2021. Robb’s column is particularly timely since Arizona is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its flagship tax-credit scholarship program, which also makes all Arizona students eligible for privately financed tuition scholarships.
As Robb explains, the arguments over money have always been a “diversion.” He writes, “Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children. The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.”
Those who favor parental choice “believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. … The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.”
In contrast, Robb writes, parental choice opponents “believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools … opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe (those schools are) suboptimal.”
In other words, government control at all cost.
But if quality education is the priority, then we need to put the real experts back in charge — children’s parents.