Congress should directly empower parents: Luke Messer & John Schilling

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Local control and abolish the Department of Education. For decades, these were the two talking points that reform-minded politicians in Washington would roll out when asked about federal education policy. The consultants would say that the only thing that mattered was to express support for kids and teachers and money. And don’t talk about school choice because the only ones who would benefit will be voting for your opponent anyway.

That was bad advice back in the 20th century, but it’s policy and political malpractice today.

The past 12 years have delivered great progress in the states to expand educational freedom and choice. Thirty-one states plus D.C. now have tax credit scholarship, voucher or education savings account programs. Seventy-four percent of voters support school choice and this strong support includes Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Latinos, African Americans, millennials and, most importantly, parents of school-aged children. In fact, the only constituencies that still oppose school choice are teachers’ union leaders and wealthy liberals.

Driving progress in the states and voter support for school choice has been parents’ increasing dissatisfaction with the state of K-12 education. This includes dismal reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), massive learning loss resulting from school closures during the pandemic, and parents’ recognition that too many public school districts are consumed with imparting a specific political viewpoint instead of improving achievement and outcomes.

Congress provides more than $60 billion annually to support K-12 education. They also provided almost $200 billion on top of that for COVID relief in 2020 and 2021. None of these funds directly empowered parents or students. Of course, that’s not the case for higher education. Congress has been providing PELL grants for students to attend the college of their choice, public or private, since 1965, but the feds have steadfastly refused to offer the same for K-12 education.

What’s needed today is urgent help for K-12 parents through a federal scholarship tax credit. Federal legislation to enact a scholarship tax credit is a fiscally smart, taxpayer-friendly way for Congress to follow the lead of reform-minded states and directly empower parents to choose the best school or education service for their children.

The Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA) – sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) — is a $10 billion federal scholarship tax credit that will help up to two million students across the country. Individual and corporate donors would donate money to non-profit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) in the states who would then provide scholarships for students to use on a variety of educational purposes, including tuition, tutoring to address learning loss, fees, special needs services, and education technology. The contributing taxpayers would receive a 100 percent non-refundable tax credit.

Private funds, not new federal money, allowing America’s families to choose the education that best meets their children’s needs, is how the ECCA is funded.

The ECCA would supercharge progress to expand educational freedom for America’s families and students. It is a bold and innovative way for Congress to support and complement what many states are already doing and to create opportunity in states that lack school choice. It is tax policy that respects federalism, protects religious liberty, and imposes no government mandates on private schools. The ECCA, for the first time, would leverage the federal tax code to directly empower parents to make educational decisions for their children.

Given that delivering education is rightly a state and local issue, and progress to expand educational freedom continues in the states, why is federal action necessary? Put simply, federal action to support state efforts is a much-needed accelerant. After 32 years of education reform work in the states, the K-12 system has not delivered educational opportunity for every child nor positive results for millions of students. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that our K-12 system is woefully unprepared to meet the needs students in the 21st century.

Every K-12 student in this nation deserves access to a quality education. The way to make this a reality is to liberate the system – give parents the power to make education decisions for their own children. Passing the Educational Choice for Children Act is the best way for Congress to stand firmly with America’s parents and students, putting them, not the system, first. That’s real local control.

Luke Messer is President of Invest in Education and a former member of Congress from Indiana; John Schilling is Senior Advisor to Invest in Education and former President of the American Federation for Children.