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.
More than three months after the CARES Act appropriated billions of dollars to aid the education of low-income students in public and private schools, most eligible private schools in Florida have yet to see financial relief according to a recent survey of participating private schools conducted by Step Up for Students, which hosts this blog.
The nation’s largest state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization helps administer five scholarship programs in Florida, including two that are income-based programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship, as well as the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities.
The Step Up survey asked more than 1,000 schools that participate in Florida’ scholarship programs questions about the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), declining enrollment, and distance learning. Participants returned 662 completed surveys and 140 partial surveys.
Of 683 schools that provided responses regarding ESSER funding, 61%, or 415 schools, reported they qualified for the funding. But of those schools, nearly three-quarters – 74% – said they have not received any emergency funds.
Congress made available $13.2 billion to help stabilize K-12 education funding this summer amidst a global pandemic and rising unemployment. The U.S. Department of Education subsequently was sued over its directive on how to calculate the share provided to private schools. Though the U.S. Department of Education declined to appeal, it noted that local education agencies still were required to share the funds based on the enrollment of low-income students attending private schools.
Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents reported enrollment declines. “Unable to afford tuition” was cited in 63.7% of cases as to why parents no longer were enrolling their child. Forty-five percent of schools (298) expressed concern about losing new students because of the Family Empowerment Scholarship’s prior-year public school attendance requirement.
Additionally, the survey found that 54% of private schools worried that declining enrollment would impact their viability.
Though troubling, these findings nevertheless are more positive than those reported earlier in the pandemic. In April, 73% of private schools reported declining enrollments.
Overall, private school enrollment among lower-income students remains steady. For 2020-21, approximately 130,000 students are utilizing income-based scholarships, up slightly from last year, although these are preliminary enrollment figures.
The Florida Department of Education is expected to release its first-quarter enrollment reports either this month or in November.
4 states, including Florida, supporting private schools with COVID-19 relief lead the way on education choice
Editor’s note: This commentary from Jude Schwalbach, a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, first published on The Daily Signal.
When COVID-19 brought the school year to an abrupt halt early this year, few anticipated that the global pandemic would be the impetus for private school choice reforms across the nation.
As is the case with so many other sectors, many private schools struggled after losing tuition and other funding resources due to the strains of COVID-19.
Recognizing what the loss of education options would mean for families, policymakers in six states proposed emergency private school scholarships in response to the crisis. Four of those states—Florida, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—used emergency federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to expand private school choice options.
The CARES Act, signed into law by Donald Trump in June, authorized $3 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, or GEER, a flexible grant that governors can use for education-related programs.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, used a portion of his state’s GEER funds to craft “Stay in School” scholarships, providing $10 million to cover tuition at Oklahoma’s 150 private schools for children from low-income families whose incomes have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 1,500 Oklahoma children could receive a scholarship worth $6,500 each.
That covers all or most of the average annual cost of private school tuition in Oklahoma, which is about $5,000 for elementary students and about $7,000 for secondary students. The scholarship amount, however, is still less than the average per-pupil amount, $8,778, spent annually by Oklahoma public schools.
Oklahoma students also will have access to the $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet education savings account-style funding, which is funded by GEER and will provide more than 5,000 children living in poverty with $1,500 grants to “purchase curriculum content, tutoring services and/or technology.”
In the era of pandemic pods, this is critical policy.
Likewise, South Carolina used its GEER funds to create a private school scholarship program for children from low- and middle-income families. Children living at or below 300% of the federal poverty line could be awarded a scholarship of about $6,500.
Other states used these funds to bolster existing private school choice programs such as tax credit scholarships.
New Hampshire under Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, boosted funding for the state’s tax credit scholarship by $1.5 million. The state’s tax credit scholarship allows individuals and businesses to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits that fund private school scholarships.
Since 2015, New Hampshire’s tax credit scholarship has allocated $3.8 million to help 1,377 children attend private schools of their choice. The additional emergency funds will help 800 children receive scholarships valued at $1,875 each. That amount covers more than 22% of the average cost of tuition at a private elementary school in the state.
Like New Hampshire, Florida used $30 million of its GEER funds to stabilize its tax credit scholarship. At the same time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, also put $15 million toward the Private School Stabilization Grant Fund. Private schools are eligible for this grant if they were hard hit by the pandemic and if more than 50% of the student body uses school choice scholarships.
Never missing a beat, special interest groups have alleged that efforts in those states to use GEER funds to support families accessing education options of choice will hurt public schools. Yet, public schools in Florida, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and South Carolina received a combined $1.1 billion from the CARES Act. Of that, the total governors’ discretionary funds accessible to children enrolled in private schools in the respective states totaled $96.5 million.
Taxpayers and state policymakers are right to balk at the new federal education funding. The $13.5 billion CARES Act, along with the $3 billion in GEER funding, is significant new federal spending, representing more than 25% of what the federal government spends yearly on K-12 education through the Department of Education’s discretionary budget.
But as The Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher wrote: “If the funds already are appropriated for education, as it is with CARES spending, then there is no more effective purpose than to give every child a chance at the American dream with more learning options.”
Moving forward, state policymakers should make sure that the emergency private school scholarships become permanent, funding them through changes to state policy. Rethinking how education funding is delivered, through more nimble models such as education savings accounts, should remain a permanent feature of the education policy landscape.
Moves in these states are steps in the right direction.
Susan Agel wants her students to gain experience. Silicon Valley internships and trips abroad would be nice, but for the students she serves, the needs are more basic.
Like riding in a car. Or going to a store — any store.
Agel’s school, Positive Tomorrows, is a private school serving homeless children in Oklahoma City. She says they enrolled one student who “had never been in a retail establishment. He had never seen his parents buy anything.” His only transportation was the occasional trip on a city bus.
“We’re a little different than most private schools,” Agel says, with a touch of understatement. One out of every five students at Positive Tomorrows is “couch homeless,” which means students sleep in motels, cars, on floors and do not have a home of their own, while another two-thirds live in homeless shelters.
“It’s these children who are living in deep poverty and are bouncing around [from] place to place and attend multiple schools in a school year,” Agel says. “They fall behind academically, they fall behind socially.”
Agel’s school specializes in providing wrap-around services for students and their families. She wants to help families out of homelessness and poverty and set them on their way to financial independence while students pursue academic independence.
“We help them find housing, make sure there is food and clothing and identify some goals that [parents] want to accomplish,” Agel explains — goals such as earning a GED or learning marketable skills.
“Once the families are stable and the kids are doing well in school, we will help them transition back into a public school,” Agel says.
Positive Tomorrows serves the “poorest in our community,” she says, and so her school “scholarships everybody for everything.” This nearly constant state of fundraising makes the uncertain economic times ushered in by the pandemic especially challenging.
“We turn away kids every year, and we don’t want to do that. We don’t like to do that,” Agel says.
Enter Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to use a portion of federal COVID relief spending for K-12 private school scholarships. Stitt set aside $10 million for these scholarships, while traditional schools received $161 million from the federal pandemic stimulus bill enacted in March. The governor’s office estimates that 1,500 students will have access to scholarships worth up to $6,500. Stitts set aside another $8 million for “digital wallet grants,” allowing 5,000 low-income families to use up to $1,500 for “curriculum content, tutoring services and/or technology.”
Gov. Stitt specifically recognized the need to help homeless students and the private schools that serve their families when he announced the scholarships.
Parents also are paying more attention to private schools this summer as traditional districts — such as Oklahoma City Public Schools — reopen exclusively online, while private schools such as Positive Tomorrows are preparing to open in-person. Given these decisions, national media have been quick to cite equity concerns, to which Positive Tomorrows and the new Oklahoma scholarships appear to answer.
“With the students we are serving, it’s highly important for them to be face-to-face in school,” Agel says. Most of the families in her school do not have internet access, nor do they have room to create temporary classrooms in homeless shelters.
Positive Tomorrows has a new facility built with the idea of expansion in mind — Oklahoma has some 26,000 homeless children, and Agel’s school enrolls 118 — so Agel hopes to use the extra space this fall to keep students in small groups.
As explained on redefinED, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster created similar K-12 private school scholarship options using federal COVID spending measures. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has also done so. Fiscal hawks (the few who still exist) should be concerned about current congressional debates for more pandemic spending since lawmakers toss around figures such as $3.5 trillion as though there is more to be found in between the cushions of the couch in the speaker’s office.
If more federal spending is coming, policymakers would do well to watch Oklahoma’s example. Such learning options should dominate educational equity discussions, turning the name of Agel’s school from an aspiration to a promise.