Every child deserves education freedom. Let’s take it nationwide
There has been a largely unreported revolution sweeping through several American states in recent years, and it has been helping students achieve better outcomes based on a simple, intrinsically American idea — give parents more control over how they use their own money and how their children are educated.
Over the past three and a half years, all of us have seen the veil lifted on the myriad problems with our government controlled public education system. Politically motivated curricula were exposed en masse, as was the iron triangle of teachers unions, federal bureaucrats and the big government state, local, and federal politicians who do their bidding.
In response, parents across the country have been standing up to take back their control over their children’s education.
One of the best ways to do this is to go straight to the reason why so many people are forced into sending their kids to public schools out of necessity: the cost of attendance.
West Virginia became the first state in the country with a near-universal Education Savings Account (ESA) policy in 2021 with the Hope Scholarship Program. ESAs are government-authorized savings accounts that allow public education dollars to truly follow students to the best education for them. They do this by allowing parents to direct their money toward any pre-approved educational expenses that their student needs to achieve and excel.
Today, 93% of students in the Mountain State are eligible for the Hope Scholarship Program. Thankfully, other states are taking notice and following suit.
In 2022, Arizona expanded its Empowerment Scholarship Account program to all students in the state. This built upon the state’s legacy of being the first state in the country to create an ESA program when it enacted the program back in 2011, when it was limited to students with special needs. Then, 2023 saw a flood of universal ESA programs in places like Iowa, Utah, Arkansas and Florida.
These states are not alone, either. Overall, there are 10 states with universal education freedom programs in various forms.
The premise behind these various policies is simple: parents are far and away the best judges of what is going to be best for their own children’s education. The judgment of some bureaucrat or union boss who has never met their child, and likely never will, is a devastatingly poor substitute for a parent who loves their children and knows them — including their individual needs, strengths and challenges.
Despite all the fearmongering propaganda we all hear about in the corporate media, what education freedom programs really do is change how money flows from “we the taxpayers” to provide a public service for the next generation of Americans.
But in doing so, those programs more importantly improve outcomes while boxing out the bureaucratic, political, and union actors who currently empower and enrich themselves by acting as middlemen between parents and their children’s education. In short, education freedom makes it possible to fund students, rather than systems.
The results speak for themselves. A recent EdChoice study found that out of 28 studies on school choice programs in the United States, 25 of the programs had a positive effect on public school students’ test scores. At a time when test scores in government schools are embarrassingly low, this should come as a welcome change to any parent who wants their child to succeed.
But just like there is no one-size-fits-all education approach, there are many policy options to enhance education freedom, like those highlighted in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s new Index of State Education Freedom. From open enrollment and virtual schools to charter and homeschool policies, parents should be empowered with options to choose the best education style for their children. Oklahoma currently provides a model for how to blend these various approaches to provide myriad choices to parents and students alike.
Right now, in Oklahoma, thanks to the Open Transfer Act, parents are free to transfer their students to any school district in the state as long as the receiving school district has the capacity to take them. This means that parents who want to send their kids to publicly run schools aren’t bound by the limitations of their Zip Code.
At the same time, students whose needs and talents are better served elsewhere can benefit from the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit, which was enacted earlier this year. This provides between $5,000 and $7,500 to parents who have determined that privately run schools are the best place for their kids. At the same time, there are also a whopping 38,000 Oklahoma students enrolled in public charter schools across all 77 counties.
Now, across the country, more than 18,000,000 students have access to some form of an education freedom program. This means that roughly one out of every three students has access to a program. While this is excellent news for a lot of parents and students, there is more work to be done.
Freedom is not a privilege that we should view as a gift from a benevolent government, and the same is true for education freedom. We the People make up the government in this country, and public education should be responsible and answerable to We the Parents. What would we as Americans think if only one in three of our fellow citizens were able to speak, assemble or worship freely?
It is time for parents and policymakers across the country to come together and build on the incredible work already done in the states. Every student deserves a chance to succeed, every parent deserves a say in their child’s education. America deserves more education freedom.
Jonathan Williams is chief economist and executive vice president of Policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council. He is coauthor of “Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index.” Follow him on X @TaxEconomist.