At the signing ceremony for his executive order on police reform Tuesday, President Trump declared: “School choice is the civil rights statement of the year, of the decade, and probably beyond.”
Conservative politicians have been sounding similar notes for decades, with precious little to show for it. But in the wake of COVID-19, the Trump administration and Congress have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strike a decisive blow for school choice.
Last year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled a federal school choice proposal: the Education Freedom Scholarships Act. Conservatives have long been torn between their desire to advance choice and their reservations about expanding the federal role in education. But the program promises to boost choice while respecting federalism by providing federal tax credits for donations to state-approved scholarship-granting organizations, potentially providing enough funding to send 1 million students to private schools.
Under normal circumstances, the chances of this bill passing the House and getting 60 votes in the Senate would be essentially zero. But these are not normal circumstances.
Education advocacy organizations have been lobbying Congress for a quarter-trillion-dollar federal bailout, threatening not to reopen schools unless they see some major cash. And although our peers across the Atlantic have already managed to reopen despite spending thousands less per pupil, an additional federal bailout for public education is inevitable.
The details of the bailout package likely to be debated next month, however, are not yet set. Trump should put his foot down and demand that he will not sign any bill unless it contains DeVos’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal.
Congressional Democrats will almost certainly resist it. But at the end of the day, they want to see a bill passed. If a deal falls apart because they refuse, Trump would be more than happy to say, “We couldn’t get a deal because the Democrats refuse to give more opportunity to low-income students of color.”
But beyond the partisan calculus, there has never been a better moment to make the case for Education Freedom Scholarships. According to a USA Todaypoll, almost 60% of parents say they’re likely to home-school their children next year, perhaps fearing health risks or fretting the unpleasantries of sterilized schools. The beauty of DeVos’s proposal is that states will have great flexibility to design and administer not only voucher programs but also education savings accounts, which would provide parents with greater means to educate their children safely at home or in small cooperatives.
Thus far, Trump’s message on school choice has been largely geared to students trapped in “failing government schools.” Given the disparities and dysfunction we’ve seen in schools’ response to COVID-19, not to mention the racial disparities we’ve seen from the disease itself, the case for helping parents make other choices or direct the education of their children themselves has never been stronger. For some parents and grandparents, it may be a matter of life and death.
An expansion of school choice could also prove essential for the civic health of our country.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the culture war seems to have spun into overdrive. Education leaders are telling teachers that if they don't commit to "anti-racism," then they are "complicit in validating the physical and spiritual murders of Black men, women, and children daily" and that right now, our schools are “spaces of Whiteness, White rage, and White Supremacy, all of which function to terrorize students of color.” If parents of color truly believe that to be the case, then we have a moral obligation to provide them with the means to send their children somewhere else.
Other parents are undoubtedly growing alarmed at the push to teach the tenets of critical race theory in K-12 education. They would not want their children being taught twisted history, such as the "1619 Project," whose lead author admits it is intended to push reparations because that’s a goal that “feels more realistic than, like, can we get white Americans to stop being white?”
School choice has long been framed as a way to help students trapped in low-performing schools. It is still that, but today it is also so much more: It’s a way for parents to keep their kids safe, a way to keep them learning, and a path toward greater pluralism and hopefully, therefore, less civil discord.
Opponents will say that the middle of the pandemic is the worst possible time to push for school choice. But there has never been a moment when the case for choice was more urgent, and there’s no telling when, or if, the opportunity to expand it dramatically will come again.
This piece originally appeared at the Washington Examiner
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