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Education freedom for elementary and secondary students took a big step forward thanks to the midterm elections last month. This is great news for millions of parents with school-age children who suffered academically and emotionally when so much of the public school establishment, pressured by teacher unions , kept schools closed far longer than necessary during the pandemic.
While much has been written about the education freedom advocates in governor mansions, state legislatures, and school boards, it is the incoming U.S. Congress that has the chance to exponentially expand K-12 freedom and opportunity for millions of children across the 50 states.
The U.S. House of Representatives was flipped by voters from a narrow Democratic majority to a narrow Republican majority. That result alone makes school choice policies more likely since far more Republican members favor education freedom than Democrats, who are mostly allied with the same teachers unions responsible for keeping schools closed and pushing “woke” curriculum content.
This present-day partisan division on K-12 school choice is unfortunate and does not reflect the overwhelming support by voters for school choice across party, racial, and ethnic lines. In fact, polling on education freedom policies, including data the Invest in Education Foundation commissioned, consistently finds that robust majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents favor school choice in its various forms. Our polling found that an average of 82% of Republican voters support choice, as do 64% of independents and 55% of Democratic voters.
Among different demographics, two-thirds of African American and Latino voters support school choice, which helps explain why a majority of Democratic voters are on the side of education freedom. Yet, sadly, at this point Democratic members of Congress do not reflect many of their own constituents’ desire to access better schools for their children. The most salient example is the newly-elevated Democratic House leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). As a state assemblyman more than a decade ago, he supported school choice. Hopefully, he will come to recognize once again that expanding education freedom is a progressive policy that would strengthen long-term economic equality in America.
The incoming Republican House majority that will take over in January will also be more pro-school choice than the outgoing GOP minority. For example, incoming Reps. Aaron Bean of Florida, Tom Kean Jr. of New Jersey, John James of Michigan, Zach Nunn of Iowa, and others bring to Congress a state-level track record of support for school choice and parental empowerment.
The reason this is so important is because Congress can and should do much more to expand K-12 education freedom. While education policy and governance are properly a state and local function under our federal system of government, our federal lawmakers can assist these efforts by using the federal tax code to generate greater charitable donations for scholarships to be used in any K-12 school, whether it is private, religious, or a non-resident public school.
Donation tax credits for individuals and businesses have worked especially well in states such as Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. These proven tax incentives should be enacted on a national scale so that parents in every state can access scholarships to obtain the highest quality, most suitable education for their children. This is particularly vital to families in places like New York , New Jersey, and California, where most state legislators are in the political grip of the teacher unions and consign families to proverbial “failure factory” schools.
Congressional Republicans have already proposed the Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA), whose initial lead sponsor, the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), a former school teacher, died tragically last summer. This legislation was included in the House GOP’s “Commitment to America” agenda ahead of the midterm elections and would benefit up to 2 million students — more than triple the national number who benefit from state school choice policies currently.
Using the tax code to encourage private action by individuals and businesses would also shield state and local policymaking and the autonomy of participating schools from federal interference. There is no mention of the U.S. Department of Education in this legislation, nor are there any federal mandates or directives imposed. Rather, it is parents who would be empowered with a much greater ability to direct their children’s educational journey by accessing private scholarships without fear of government encroachment.
The ECCA would effectively turn all parents with school-age children into education customers. That new reality will result in a system-wide benefit by shifting the leverage of influence over public education from the school district monopolistic bureaucracy to the parents since they can now potentially “shop” elsewhere for a school if their public school stops meeting their needs.
Congress has the chance to make education freedom a reality for students across the country. Our representatives in Washington must not let this opportunity pass.
Peter Murphy is senior adviser for policy at the Invest in Education Coalition.