Choice is a Win for Students

What child hasn't heard the story of Chicken Little? His encounter with a falling acorn leads him mistakenly to conclude the sky is falling. Mass hysteria ensues when his friends buy in to his doom-saying. Unfortunately, misguided panic isn’t confined to fairy tales.

In the aftermath of Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Secretary of Education, opponents predict she could decimate public education. DeVos is a well-known school choice advocate who believes in empowering parents and students with options.  Unfortunately, critics view this not as a step forward but as a disaster.

Their perspective is misguided, unsupported by facts, and ultimately harmful for the future of American education.

But here’s one thing DeVos’s supporters and detractors agree on: Every student deserves access to a quality education. The goal is not in question, only the means.

Some believe traditional public schools assigned to students based on their zip code can meet every student’s individual needs—every time, in every town in America, in every situation.

Advocates of choice, though, believe traditional public schools work well for some students, but public charter schools, private schools, cyber schools, home schools, or some combination of these work best for others. And proponents of choice have the evidence on their side.

Indeed, when educational options increase, students perform better, traditional public schools improve, and taxpayers save money.

For proof, look no further than Pennsylvania’s highly popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs, which allow businesses to direct a portion of their tax liability to fund scholarships to families dissatisfied with their assigned public school. Since 2001, more than 500,000 such scholarships have been awarded.

The results? Of 18 studies of educational choice scholarship programs nationwide, 14 found they improved academic performance.

Beyond the studies, the students are the real evidence. At St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia, for example, students are excited to learn, and their academic achievements are inspiring—despite the obstacles they face. Of 500 students at St. Francis, 74 percent are low-income, and many are immigrants, hailing from 45 countries.

Tuition runs only $3,700, with a total cost per student of $4,800. Even so, most students at St. Francis would be unable to afford tuition if not for the EITC and OSTC programs.

Traditional public schools also benefit from educational options. Of 33 studies of the impact of school choice scholarship programs on public schools, 31 found public schools actually improve as a result of choice. In Philadelphia, for example, traditional schools are exploring ways to improve their offerings to compete with public charter schools.

What’s more, school choice makes fiscal sense. EITC and OSTC scholarships are roughly $2,000 per student. Meanwhile, school district funding per student is nearly $16,000 on average. As a result, the EITC alone saved Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $1 billion from 2002 to 2014, according to a recent audit by EdChoice.

Far from fearing choice, we should expand educational options for all Pennsylvania students. The thousands on waitlists for charter schools already show demand is there. That’s why HB 250, sponsored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, seeks to increase EITC and OSTC contribution caps so even more students benefit.

Lawmakers should also explore Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)—a path-breaking program that provides flexible funding to parents to customize their child’s education. Under this policy, funds earmarked for a child’s K-12 education are deposited into an account controlled by parents and supervised by the state.

These funds may be spent on a variety of educational services, including but not limited to private school tuition, tutoring, online programs, and even programs offered by local school districts. ESAs have been enacted in five states so far, with legislation introduced or pending in many others—including the Pennsylvania State House. 

When it comes to children’s futures, we must progress beyond the mindset that the public education system exists to prop up buildings or bureaucrats.

Instead, we must put children first. As DeVos has said, “Let the education dollars follow each child, instead of forcing the child to follow the dollars.” Too many students in our great state are forced to follow the dollars.

With DeVos’s confirmation, students and parents in Pennsylvania and across the nation can have renewed hope that the education policies coming from Washington, D.C., will ensure our education system serves students, not the reverse.