With more states supporting school choice, it's time for the movement to go national

2023 was dubbed by some people the “Year of Educational Choice.” Twenty states either launched new private school choice programs or substantially expanded existing programs. While both 2011 and 2021 had been labeled the “Year of School Choice,” due to similar expansions of access to private schooling, that was then, and this is now.

Policymakers increasingly are moving beyond voucher programs, which only provide funds for private school tuition and fees. Instead, they are enacting Education Savings Account (ESA) programs, where the educational dollars can be directed by parents to a variety of educational products, services and providers to fully customize their child’s education. More states are making all K-12 students eligible for private school choice and opting for indirect funding of these programs, through tax credits to individuals and businesses, in lieu of direct government funding.

While 33 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico currently offer 78 private school choice programs or policies, that leaves parents in 17 states (I did the math) without any financial support to help them access private schooling for their child. Seventeen states are private school choice deserts, including three of the four largest states by population: California, New York and Texas. The lack of access to private school choice is particularly frustrating for parents of students with disabilities and those from historically disadvantaged populations, whose children suffered the greatest learning losses when schools closed during the pandemic.

The federal Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA) offers a potential solution for parents in private school choice deserts. Introduced as S.120 by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the ECCA would offer federal income tax credits to individuals and corporations that donate to nonprofit organizations called Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The SGOs would then turn those charitable dollars into grants to parents to cover private school tuition, tutoring, educational therapies, educational technology and curriculum for their child. The grants could total up to $5,000. Two million students could be supported annually.

The ECCA is an evidence-based education intervention. A meta-analysis of 21 rigorous experimental evaluations of similar private school scholarship opportunities around the world, but mostly in the U.S., reports that achievement increases when students avail themselves of such initiatives. A study of all forms of school choice across the U.S. finds that states with higher levels of “education freedom” experienced larger increases in student scores on the National Educational Assessment Program (NAEP) exams from 2000 to 2016.

Private schooling is associated with better civic outcomes for students and parents. When faced with competition from private school choice initiatives, district-run public schools improve their performance, generating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”

Currently, parents are dependent on state policymakers to enact private school choice programs. The U.S. has no national school choice policy. Some people argue that variation across states is a healthy product of the federalism that is central to our constitutional republic. Federalism, however, is supposed to generate laboratories of democracy to inform national and state policy. When it comes to private school choice, however, the evidence is in. Choice is effective.

Federalism also holds that states should be given a great deal of freedom to shape policies, such as K-12 education, that largely affect local communities. The ECCA would preserve local control, as existing school choice initiatives would be enhanced, not replaced, and states with school choice deserts would be free to accept or reject the scholarship opportunity with no strings attached.

School choice also is politically popular, with over 70 percent of respondents nationally saying they approve of an ESA program like the one envisioned by the ECCA. The national scholarship opportunity would bring meaningful school choice to the 17 states that are school choice deserts. No one would be forced to participate. The ECCA would be another way to advance education freedom in the USA. When parents have choices, children have a brighter future.

Patrick J. Wolf is a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas. The opinions expressed here are his own

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