As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, many public schools have been closed for in-person instruction for nearly a year, thanks in large part to resistance from teachers’ unions.
Meanwhile, children have been falling behind academically, mentally, and physically — and their families have been scrambling to search for education alternatives because of the traditional public school system’s unwillingness, and in some cases inability, to adapt to change.
The past year has exposed one of the main problems with K-12 education in the United States: There is a long-existing massive power imbalance between the public school monopoly and individual families.
Residentially-assigned public schools receive large amounts of children’s education dollars regardless of how well they meet the needs of individual families, and as we’ve witnessed this past year, regardless of whether they even open their doors for business.
It’s one thing for a child’s residentially-assigned public school to continue receiving their education dollars year after year despite failing to meet their needs. But it’s another conversation altogether for that same school to continue to receive a child’s education dollars while their doors are closed. Parents across the country are waking up to the fact that they’re getting the short end of the stick when it comes to K-12 education.
If a grocery store doesn’t reopen, families can take their money elsewhere. Families are realizing that if their child’s school doesn’t reopen, they should similarly be able to take their education dollars elsewhere. In fact, families should be able to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere regardless of their school’s reopening decision. After all, education funding is supposed to be for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution.
There has been a recent surge in support for funding students instead of systems. The latest nationwide survey from RealClear Opinion Research found that support for funding students directly increased by 10 percentage points in just a few months — from 67 percent in April to 77 percent in August 2020 — among parents with children in public schools. Another national survey conducted by Ed Choice found that support for four types of school choice — education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and charter schools — all surged between the spring and fall of 2020.
The same survey also found that 86 percent of parents with school-aged children now support funding students directly through education savings accounts. Education savings account initiatives would allow families to use a portion of their children’s K-12 education dollars to cover the costs of approved education providers, including private schooling, homeschooling, micro-schooling, pandemic pods, tutoring, and special needs services.
This realization that we should be funding students instead of closed buildings is also leading to real action in a majority of state legislatures across the country.
Legislators in 27 states have introduced bills to enact or expand programs that would fund K-12 students as opposed to institutions. As of this writing, seven of these states—Iowa, Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota, and West Virginia—have already passed school choice legislation out of a chamber, and five others—Florida, Georgia, Montana, Idaho, and Oklahoma—have passed bills out of at least one committee.
The proposals differ in size and scope, but they would all be a step in the right direction towards expanding educational freedom — and some of them would be groundbreaking. For example, over 90 percent of the school-aged population would be eligible for the proposal that passed out of the West Virginia House of Representatives. And under a bill in New Hampshire, nearly all of the school-aged population would be eligible for their proposal to fund students instead of systems.
Additionally, one of the two school choice proposals that passed out of the Arizona State Senate would roughly triple the number of families eligible for their education savings account program from 22 percent of the school-aged population to an estimated 65 percent to 70 percent.
Legislators in some states—including Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—filed bills that would allow families to take their children’s K-12 education dollars elsewhere if their schools didn’t reopen in person. These bills suggest that much of this momentum is driven by prolonged school closures. Georgia’s proposal to fund students directly has several eligibility categories, one of which is students assigned to public schools that do not offer full-time, in-person instruction. North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop similarly introduced a federal bill to allow families to take a portion of any future K-12 education relief dollars to the approved education provider of their choice if their public school doesn’t reopen in-person full-time.
We already fund students directly when it comes to Pell Grants and the GI Bill for higher education. The same goes for taxpayer-funded pre-K programs such as Head Start. Food stamps and Medicaid funding similarly go to families who have a choice of where they want to spend their grocery and health care budgets.
We should apply the same logic to K-12 education and fund students, not systems.
A version of this column previously appeared at the Daily Caller.