Education Reform Suffers When Politicians Put Careers Before Kids

Education Reform Suffers When Politicians Put Careers Before Kids
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School choice remains a popular concept across the nation. A recent national poll by the American Federation for Children found that 63 percent of likely voters supported school choice. The movement’s next step should involve expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which give parents greater control over how and where their education dollars are spent while also granting them tax savings. 

In the places where ESAs have been implemented families have welcomed greater choice. They are able to use their accounts for many things beyond tuition, including tutoring and supplemental instructional materials. States like Arizona have passed legislation that would implement broad-based ESAs, and smart, forward-thinking ESA legislation remains alive in states like New Hampshire. Surveys in Arizona have found that families using ESAs are very satisfied. 

But in a number of other states with conservative leadership, progress on ESAs has been much slower. In TexasArkansas, and Mississippi, for example, efforts to advance school choice have failed in the legislature this year.

The case of Wisconsin may prove particularly illustrative. There, a very modest ESA bill that would only have been open to a small subset of gifted and talented students was not even voted out of committee in the Republican-controlled legislature. That bill would have provided $1,000 to the families, on top of their regular school aid, to pay for educational supplements such as tutoring, text books, or online courses. But a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans skeptical of school choice put an end to it.  

From a historical perspective, this is surprising since Wisconsin has long been at the forefront of education reform. In 1990, private school tuition vouchers were little more than a theory put forth by economist Milton Friedman. Yet, Republican Governor Tommy Thompson worked across the aisle with Democratic leaders like Representative Polly Williams to create the nation’s first voucher program in Milwaukee. It was without precedent. The move was politically risky for all involved, but a bipartisan passion for providing better educational options for the Milwaukee families most in need overrode short-term political concerns. Since then, the program has grown dramatically from just over 300 children in 1990 to more than 27,000 today.  

We know that school choice works: It has improved the lives of thousands of children across the country. Research has found that many kids have graduated high school, avoided crime, or entered college who otherwise might not have thanks to higher quality education options. 

So why are some states falling so behind the education reform curve? The simple answer is that, while school choice is popular, higher funding for public schools is even more so.

Despite limited evidence of how effective it can be, additional funding for public schools is politically safe for politicians. In rural districts, where the image of the public school as the center of the community perhaps remains strongest, scare tactics about the so-called “destruction of public schools” can be particularly effective.

Pushing a substantial change to the status quo is always politically risky but, as Wisconsin showed in the 1990s and early 2000s, it is the best outcome for families who need options. Such reforms are possible only when policymakers are passionate about providing better opportunities for the children of their state and willing to take risks. Policymakers, both in Wisconsin and around the country, should look back to Tommy Thompson’s efforts as evidence of what can happen when politicians choose the future of children over their political careers.

Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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