| October 10, 2013

America Is Choosing Educational Freedom, As the Future Rushes In

You might say, in the immortal words of Charles Dickens, that when it comes to education reform, particularly choice, these are “the best of times, and the worst of times. “

On the downside, endless legal challenges continue to arise every time a choice system is enacted or implemented. On the upside is the ever-expanding scope of education choice.

While many existing programs focus on assisting children with special needs, an increasing number empower greater numbers of children and parents to access the educational system of their choice.

Often is heard the expression, “School choice is not a panacea.” Well, nothing in this fallen world is a panacea. There will always be new challenges and difficulties, even in the best-designed systems, administered by the best-intentioned people. But too many public school districts are poorly designed and administered by people determined to deny parents and children effective options.

Despite the wishes of foes, America is in the midst of a Renaissance of options destined to transform positively every aspect of American schooling.

To capture this diversity, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice hosted an afternoon of news, information, and conversation at the recent State Policy Network (SPN) meeting in Oklahoma City. While some SPN sessions were off the record, this one was open to the public and to reporters.

There are now 14 tax-credit scholarship programs in 11 states, including Oklahoma. There are 18 outright voucher systems in 12 states (including Oklahoma) and in the nation’s capital city. Individual tax credits and deductions to support choice exist in six states.

In Arizona, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are providing a means for children to access better schools—whether they are public or private.

The Arizona program holds, arguably, the greatest promise for the future. There is now in place a rational system of accountability as the program grows. The Arizona ESA system is still relatively small in numbers of students—but it is doubling every year.

And, there’s good news: On October 1, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ESA. In the majority opinion, the court ruled the program “enhances the ability of parents of disabled children to choose how best to provide for their educations, whether in or out of private schools. No funds in the ESA are earmarked for private schools. Thus, we hold that the ESA does not violate” the Arizona constitution. The case now moves to the state Supreme Court.

The Louisiana “Course Choice” program, pioneered by Gov. Bobby Jindal, drew several thousand participants in its first weeks. It allows use of tax resources to get students online or other access to courses they might otherwise miss. The most popular subject areas in the early wave are Spanish, math, algebra, biology, and civics.

Initial enthusiasm among Louisiana’s advocates was dampened somewhat in late summer, when the program empowering thousands of high-schoolers came under direct attack from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration. Jindal intends to fight for the program, all the way.

Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program for special-needs children has been in place for three years. It won an important procedural decision in 2012, but is under renewed attack from a group of anti-choice educators seeking a declaratory judgment.

At the Friedman Foundation event, the lineup of stellar speakers included, on a panel moderated by OCPA’s Jonathan Small, Jeff Spalding of the Friedman Foundation, who examined the positive impact of choice programs on public school finances. Analyst Collin Hitt distilled the depressing story of public education in Chicago, where taxpayers spend $14,386 per student, compared to an average of just $8,000 spent in the Windy City’s highly effective private schools.

Hitt also outlined the $700 million increase in Illinois school spending last year. In all, $600 million of that went to finance pension benefits for current public school teacher retirees. For the long run, he argued, only education choice can provide long-term savings to taxpayers, and certainty for participating teachers that a nest egg will be waiting for them upon retirement.

Anyone who spends a few years studying education in America will hear the frequent mantra about the importance of meeting every child where they are in terms of ability, learning styles, and so forth. Yet the government system’s rigidity and lack of rigor often conspires against these noble sentiments.

Educational choice is delivering on the promise of content delivery aiming at every child and in every setting.

Lindsey Burke, of the Heritage Foundation, detailed the intriguing range of choices being exercised in the nascent Arizona ESA program. While 65.5 percent of participants make a “traditional” choice—to access a private school—an impressive 34.5 percent are making what she characterized as “customized choices,” including tutoring, online course work, textbooks, testing, therapy, and curriculum options.

The gurus of choice at the Friedman Foundation and their allies, including Dr. Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the push for more choice is slowly filling the capacity of existing schools or “seats.” Over the next decade, the challenge is to encourage high-quality schools to expand and to create new high-quality systems.

The afternoon at SPN was a banquet for advocates and was informational even for opponents of choice. In a debate on the Common Core standards, Robert Enlow, Jay Greene, Michael Petrilli, and Oklahoman Phyllis Hudecki made their cases with verve and insight—Enlow and Greene against the Common Core, Petrilli and Hudecki for it.

Paul Weyrich, the “New Right” leader for whom I worked over a decade in the nation’s capital, used to say: “Conservative leaders should concentrate on issues that unite us, and divide the left.”

Whereas school choice unites the various elements of the center-right, the debate over Common Core divides the ranks. It has now taken from other education reform struggles the time, energy, creativity, and passion that should be devoted to other battles. As Joy Pullmann of the Heartland Institute has observed, “the Common Core controversy seems to have sucked the air out of an exploding school choice movement.”

With good souls in each camp, I nonetheless found prophetic the musings of Dr. Greene. He not only delivered a slashing critique of a sincere effort at national reform that now looks like a “flavor of the month” (perhaps it should be dubbed a “flavor of the decade”), that is, the latest “solution” to the problems of American schooling. He also predicted the opposition is now simply too strong for Common Core to succeed.

So: education reformers who want to make a difference within a reasonable time frame should move away from Common Core and instead seek common ground: a renewed push for the children, the taxpayers, and the future.

Educational freedom is the future. Time to embrace it.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of He is the editor of seven books on legal policy, and the author or co-author of three books, including Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork. This year the Washington Post political blog, “The Fix,” designated McGuigan one of the three best political reporters in Oklahoma.

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