Education Opinion

School Choice Makes Further Inroads

By Walt Gardner — June 05, 2015 2 min read
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Parents in Nevada were granted unprecedented control over their children’s education when the universal Education Savings Account became law there on June 2 (“School Choice: Full Education Competition Comes To Nevada,” Investor’s Business Daily, Jun. 3). Unlike other plans that provide parents with only a small portion of the cost of tuition at private and religious schools, Nevada sets aside funds that would otherwise be used in a traditional public school. Parents can then tap the funds to customize their own children’s education.

Although Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have ESAs in place, Nevada offers the plans to all students, rather than just to stipulated sub-groups of students. Moreover, most students will receive 90 percent of their state funds or about $5,000. Students with special needs and those from families with an income of 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level will get 100 percent of their state funds.

What’s important to note is that parental choice - at least in the form of vouchers or their variants - has been rejected by voters by sizable margins in 28 referendums between 1966 and 2014. It’s only in state legislatures that parental choice has become law.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice. But I’ve repeatedly warned that there will always be students whose parents are not involved enough in their education to take advantage of the opportunities open to them. As a result, they are left to languish. Ideally, all traditional public schools would offer a quality education, obviating the need for choice. However, that is not the reality.

That’s why enrollment in school-choice programs has grown from 29,003 in the 2001 school year to 245,854 in the 2013 school year. In New York City, the wait list for admission to charter schools at last count was about 49,700. Charter students there usually come from low-income, minority families. In fact, parental choice is strongly favored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (“Does School Choice Improve Education?” The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2011).

The question would seem to come down to whether taxpayers should subsidize the personal choices that parents make. But in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris provided the answer when it held that tuition support can be used at private and religious schools as long as the funds do not go directly to those schools. Unless the high court reverses itself, the wall between church and state will continue to crumble.

I received an excellent education from K-12 in public schools, and I vigorously support them. But the reality is that times have changed and parents of all races and socioeconomic classes are increasingly demanding the right to send their children to whichever school they alone feel best meets their needs and interests. I believe that choice is a force that will not be vanquished. Yet again I warn about the downsides.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.