Editor’s note: This commentary from Ben DeGrow, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., published Monday on The Hill.
The once-forecasted political “blue wave” offered labor leaders and their partisan allies the hope of rolling back educational choice, but that wave never arrived. With Democrats unable to take over new state levers of power, they and union officials instead may be facing a torrent of new initiatives to give students and families more opportunities.
In this most unusual year, the coronavirus pandemic has opened many parents’ eyes to the brutal shortcomings that pervade K-12 education, and voters returned to office more policymakers who are willing and able to take a stand on parents’ behalf. Labor leaders and bureaucrats accustomed to running the school system should brace themselves for a jolt of parent power.
Using emergency CARES Act funds, some states already have revealed new strategies to fund students directly during the pandemic. For example, Texas and Ohio authorized $1,500 microgrants to families to help them supplement the special education services their disabled children receive while in-person instruction is unavailable.
Friendly leaders in the nation’s capital have demonstrated an unprecedented level of backing for choice over the past four years. It’s one issue that increasingly resonates with voters across the political spectrum — almost 70 percent favor expanding choice.
Ten years ago, a “red wave” handed over the keys to many state legislatures and governors’ mansions to a political party not beholden to teachers unions. That fresh burst of lawmaking energy turned 2011 into the Year of School Choice, as state leaders across the country adopted 18 new voucher, tax-credit scholarship and education savings account programs. Many thousands of students experienced new opportunities as a result.
This month, dozens of pro-school choice officials won election in a number of key states, according to the American Federation for Children. A growing and diverse coalition of frustrated parents may prompt these lawmakers to open new approaches to help children succeed. They could expand private school choice programs like the ones formed a decade ago, and add fresh kinds of aid that enable families with lesser means to work directly with teachers in setting up learning pods.
Parents’ hopes are also backed by a powerful legal precedent. Last June’s groundbreaking Espinoza ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court bars state courts from using archaic constitutional provisions to block parents from choosing private, religious schools when they use publicly funded scholarships. In fact, the state where the Espinoza case originated soon may be part of the vanguard. The election of a new Montana governor places state control entirely in Republican hands, opening up possibilities for more robust programs than the small 2015 scholarship initiative that triggered the case.
As states take up the cause, choice supporters should look to Florida to see where legislative work could lead. A statewide nonprofit there recently handed out the millionth scholarship to a low-income K-12 student, in a story that stretches back nearly 20 years. Those scholarships are funded by corporate donations that receive tax write-offs, the result of a 2001 law adopted under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. The scholarships help many academically struggling students rise to the educational level of their more advantaged peers.
The votes of Black mothers whose children benefit from Florida’s K-12 scholarships put Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over the finish line during the 2018 election. With lawmakers from both parties, he has worked to deliver more choice to families in a state where accessible education options already are common.
While a few states may be ready to follow in Florida’s steps, school choice survived an onslaught in a different state. The union-supported “Red for Ed” movement aimed to scale back one of the nation’s most robust array of educational choices in Arizona. Yet voters, who appear to have narrowly rejected both the president and the incumbent Republican U.S. senator, also dashed Democratic hopes of taking over either chamber of the legislature.
Across the continent, in a state President-elect Joe Biden won easily, New Hampshire completely reversed a 2018 Democratic takeover that, last year, prompted efforts to squash a smaller version of a Florida-style scholarship tax-credit program. With the proposed repeal now on ice, a fresh batch of legislators soon will have the chance to expand educational opportunity in the Granite State.
Newly energized by students and parents in need, reform-minded policymakers across the nation are poised to expand the bounds of learning opportunities. If their actions make possible a new wave of successful students and satisfied parents, they could transform education in the U.S. for decades to come.