The Pandemic Has Reawakened the School Choice Movement

The Pandemic Has Reawakened the School Choice Movement
(Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

“This pandemic has reawakened this movement of school choice,”  said  Calvin Lee of American Federation for Children at a roundtable discussion on school choice in Waukesha, Wisconsin this week. While COVID-19 has not been easy for many families as they have tried to balance work and educating their children at home, it has offered many parents a window into their child’s learning that they never would have had. If nothing else positive comes of this change of lifestyle during the pandemic, parents exercising school choice will be a remarkable silver lining—but there is a lot of work to do before choice is available to all students across America. 

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The roundtable was hosted by Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway as well as Wisconsin parents, school leaders and school choice advocates. Building off of Lee’s comments, Pence  said, “every parent became an educator, in part, and had to make choices in the way they use their own time and the way they became engaged… I’m really struck by your comment that maybe this challenging time through which we’ve passed has reinvigorated that principle in parents.”  

School choice, in a broad sense, is about giving parents and students more educational options, whether that be in public schools, private schools or homeschooling. For instance, Chris Lawrence from No Better Friend, another choice parent and advocate, shared how the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has allowed him and his wife to send their kids to St. Marcus Lutheran School, where their children also receive a religious education. 

National surveys have also shown that more families are interested in homeschooling. According to a RealClear Opinion Research  poll, a whopping 40% of families are more likely to homeschool or do virtual schooling with their kids after the shutdown, and 64% support school choice in general.  

At its essence, school choice is about trusting that parents know what is best for their children. “That’s one of the great things about school choice, I’ve always observed,” said Pence. “It has the effect of reminding parents that they’re the most important person in their child’s life, and that their decisions and their choices in the best interests of the kid are the best guiding principle.” 

While this discussion was an important step in acknowledging the opportunity parents had to learn about their kids’ education during the shutdown, more work must be done to expand the educational opportunities for all students. For instance, despite Wisconsin’s immense success with the parental choice programs serving over 40,000 students,  the state still has, some of the largest racial achievement gaps for minority students in the country.  

In Milwaukee, the state’s largest school district, NAEP scores show that an African American eighth grader is reading at the proficiency level of his or her fourth-grade, white peer.  This learning gap contributes to student’s educational outcomes, with Milwaukee’s high school graduation rate hovering around 66% on average for the past few school years. 

Without a doubt, school choice programs help address education inequities for underserved students.  Research found that students participating in the MPCP are more likely to have higher proficiency in math and English on state tests, graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college compared to their public school peers. But not every Wisconsin child has access to a school choice program due to barriers like enrollment caps.  

More can be done legislatively to help families access educational opportunities, too. The administration’s support for school choice is a step in the right direction with several proposals in Congress that would expand opportunities for families. U.S. Representative Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) submitted a  letter  to congressional leadership advocating for the expansion of 529 plans so that families can access that funding for homeschooling and distance learning needs. Secretary DeVos’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal would create a voluntary tax-credit scholarship for states that choose to implement it.   

School choice could also be expanded across the country with the pending decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case about the constitutionality of Blaine Amendments. If the Court rules in favor of the Montana mom, Kendra Espinoza, school choice programs could be enacted in at least 13 states and help thousands of students across the country.  

“We’re fighting for school choice, which really is the civil rights [issue] of all time in this country,” President Trump  said to reporters last week. And the reality is, it’s a civil rights issue for students and their parents. “Every parent should be able to choose where their kids go to school—regardless of their income,” said Pence at the roundtable this week. The time is now for parents to make a choice. 

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