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The 2021/22 legislative cycles resulted in the largest advancement of school choice in American history. Prompted by overwhelming demand from families, 24 states passed legislation to expand, create, or improve school choice programs.
The story has been well-chronicled by center-right media and elsewhere: COVID-19-induced school shutdowns exposed parents to the long-existing realities of the education system. Many parents did not like what they found. As a result, more parents than ever raised their voices in demand of educational opportunities for their kids.
Widespread public interest in school choice is long overdue. Since the establishment of the first American public school in 1839, education is the least-reformed institution in the entire American political experiment. Our classrooms are modeled to train industrial workers, and our calendar still follows long-abandoned agrarian cycles. Far worse, our existing system is flagrant discrimination by ZIP code, and a one-size-fits-all system will never serve the needs of every student. Meanwhile, the success of school choice around the country is indisputable.
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The future of America depends upon the education of the next generation. The question now becomes how to extend meaningful options to all families in the United States – not just the select few. As we look toward 2023, school choice advocates and those interested in education freedom should consider the following.
First, parents must continue cementing themselves as a political and electoral juggernaut. The past few years witnessed the rise of parents as the newest and largest special interest in America. In 2018, a coalition of school choice moms crossed party lines to elect Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose opponent Andrew Gillum publicly opposed the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Two years later, Virginia parents, outraged by Terry McAuliffe’s assertion that “parents [shouldn’t] be telling schools what they should teach,” led to a resurgent victory for Governor Glenn Youngkin. This fall, school choice proponents dominated midterm elections in numerous states. The American political establishment must accept that parents aren’t going anywhere, and parents put the needs of their children above political allegiances.
Second, we must embrace bipartisanship. The village idiot concludes that two are better than one. Republicans have rightly embraced school choice this cycle, and education freedom should take its place as a tentpole issue for conservatives. But the education of future generations is an inherently universal concern. Educational opportunities, especially when extended to the low-income and minority students who need them most, should be a goal pursued by Democrats too.
Let’s not forget that the first school choice program – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – was enacted through the efforts of a bi-partisan coalition of legislators who were willing to put children before politics, a recipe required for the passage of many programs that followed. Democratic lawmakers should act upon the will of their constituents – 68% of whom support school choice.
We must focus on empowering families, not fighting culture wars or defending the status quo. The academic decline of public education and the ancillary disputes over curriculum have become popular fields for outrage, embellishment, and debate. This impasse is wholly the result of a one-size-fits-all system, and our energies should be concentrated on providing families with a way out – if they want it.
The political and social showdown between the opposing sides is akin to an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. School choice offers another way – families can access the education that best meets their priorities. Parents don’t want to fight culture wars; our energies must be on attaining the reprieve that educational options provide.
Last, we must go big or go home. Parents are ready for boldness, now more than ever. During this cycle, Arizona and West Virginia both passed universal school choice legislation (West Virginia with the condition that the student attended public school first). In Arizona, every single student now has access to education savings accounts (ESA) to customize their education in accordance with their needs. That is the goal every school choice advocate should have in mind.
Even the smallest school choice proposal is guaranteed to be met with total opposition by teachers’ unions and education gatekeepers, so every school choice initiative should aim to help as many kids as possible. The passage of universal school choice programs in 2021/22 has proven the political possibilities are much larger than timid politicians dare to dream. In 2023, it’s time to go big for American students.