January 8, 2021
The recent riot in Washington, D.C. can be viewed as a reason for pessimism about 2021. But serious times like these also highlight the importance of reflecting not only on our problems, but on what is going right in the world of politics and policy.
One area that is off to a good start is education innovation and choice. Two state policies, a new grassroots education development and a Supreme Court case from the last year offer reasons for hope and optimism moving forward.
State policies: special needs tax credit scholarship and increased charter school enrollment
During 2020, the Utah State Legislature passed a tax credit scholarship for students with special needs. This program builds on the popularity of the Carson Smith Scholarship – a voucher program that pays for private school tuition for students with special needs – by helping parents purchase things like textbooks, therapies and other instructional materials. There seems to be a growing consensus that students, especially in more vulnerable populations, need options. More legislators may be willing to expand existing programs. As families live through uncertain times, and with this victory so recently won, more options may come as a result.
Likewise, the state’s lawmaking body increased enrollment caps for two public online charter schools in 2020. This was in direct response to pandemic school closures, which immediately and dramatically shifted family needs in the direction of more digital options.
Even with the vaccine available, school districts are navigating an ever-changing education landscape, and state-funded (at no additional cost to families) alternatives will likely become increasingly popular.
Grassroots: Pandemic learning pods and homeschooling gain popularity
Popping up across the nation as school closures continued were “pandemic pods.” Pandemic pods are essentially groups of families and students who pool resources to essentially home school their children together in group instruction (the idea is usually to meet exclusively with this group to prevent spread of the disease). Utah made headway in this learning innovation during 2020 with many families giving it a try. How many families continue in this option even when normalcy returns remains to be seen, but sentiment appears to be growing in favor of home-based learning.
Not surprisingly, and likely because “pods” hit the same notes as homeschooling – freedom to choose curriculum and environment – there was also a rise in popularity for homeschooling nationwide.
Supreme Court: Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
The United States Supreme Court gave the private school choice movement a win last year (as well as religious liberty) in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In short, the court held that religious private schools cannot be barred from participating in a state’s education choice program because of their religious character, as had been attempted in Montana.
This ruling gives another layer of support as states move forward with creating or expanding school choice programs, which will undoubtedly bolster education choice advocates going forward.
We’ve entered 2021 with some reason for optimism in education innovation and choice. The challenge is to maintain this positive movement with the hope that not only will these developments help students today, but that they will also give rise to even more educational options for families in the future.
Being truly educated means understanding one of the most powerful forces in the world: religion. Being a truly educated American means understanding the importance of protecting that force: freedom of religion.
The Washington model illustrates that by recognizing potential conflicts and enacting appropriate accommodations, schools can do their work without unnecessarily infringing the religious exercise of students. It is a model other states, including Utah, should follow.
Caring for children and families in vulnerable situations is an undoubted public priority, and everyone willing to provide good-faith help is needed.