Reflections on National School Choice Week

Last week was National School Choice Week, with more than 16,000 events from coast to coast shining a spotlight on effective education options for students.

Today, parental choice in education encompasses a variety of education options:

Eight states and the District of Columbia allow parents to enroll their children in any public school they wish, regardless of where they live.

Another 43 states and DC allow public charter schools. Altogether more than 6,700 charter schools enroll over 3 million students.

Public magnet schools, 3,200 nationwide, enroll over 2.6 million students in all 50 states and DC.

Parental choice in education also includes a growing number of private and online learning options as well:

Fully 27 states and DC offer private school parental choice programs, including publicly-funded voucher scholarships, privately-funded tax-credit scholarships, tax credits, and tax deductions. These programs are helping more than 1.2 million students and their families nationwide.

Students in 41 states and DC are also benefiting from fully or blended online learning options, some 2.6 million students.

Finally, more than 2 million students are currently homeschooled (3 percent of American students).

California is also home to a unique parental choice option. It became the first state in 2010 to enact Parent Trigger legislation through the Parent Empowerment Act. Under the law, if a majority of parents whose children attend failing schools sign a petition, school leaders can be replaced, students can transfer to better performing schools, or the school can be converted to a charter school under different leadership.

As Gloria Romero, former state Senator and author of California’s Parent Trigger law, told the Orange County Register:

School choice means that we are more than a default ZIP code, automatically assigned to remain trapped in failing schools when bureaucrats refuse to transform…School choice means that parents truly have the power to become the architects of their own children’s educational futures and opportunities.

Romero is right—but there is more work to be done when it comes to empowering parents.

It makes no sense that California students are still largely assigned to schools based on where their parents can afford to live. It’s time California expanded parental choice over how—not just where—their children are educated by enacting education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Two of California neighbors, Arizona and Nevada, have already enacted ESAs, as well as Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Missouri and Oklahoma are also among the first states this year to consider enacting ESAs.

The ESA concept is simple. Parents who do not prefer a public school education for their child simply inform the state and 90 percent of what the state would have spent is deposited into that child’s ESA instead. In most programs, parents are issued a dedicated-use debit card for approved education expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, testing fees, and special education therapies. Funds are disbursed quarterly, but only after parents have submitted expense receipts for verification. Any leftover funds remain in students’ ESAs for future education expenses, including college.

California is home to important reforms, including Parent Trigger and the local control funding formula (LCFF) enacted in 2013–14 (see here, too). However, simply spending more money—not to mention the stark absence of accountability measures—is no guarantee of improved student outcomes.

ESAs would empower parents, localize funding, personalize student learning, and put immediate academic and fiscal accountability measures in place.

National School Choice Week underscores that parents, the ones who know and love children best, should be in charge of their education every week of the year.

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For the authoritative examination of the history and impact of the U.S. Department of Education and the need for innovative reforms based on educational choice and opportunity, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children, by Vicki E. Alger.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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