Strengthen education choice – and depoliticize the classroom

Written by Derek Monson

September 24, 2021

In a recent Heterodox Dialogue on education choice and viewpoint diversity, scholar Greg Forster explained how education choice helps depoliticize the classroom:

Choice would get political culture wars out of the classroom. When people are convinced that all children — and especially their own children — are being indoctrinated into the other side’s propaganda, no force on earth will stop them from fighting tooth and nail to seize political control of education in order to prevent this indoctrination. But if different schools could take different approaches, with parents able to decide which schools their children attend and thus the approach under which they are educated, schools would be free to educate independently of culture-war pressures.

Forster’s point about what ensues when people (especially parents) feel that children are being “indoctrinated” certainly seems to fit the controversy in Utah stirred by parents’ response to concerns that their children are being taught the ideas of CRT in public school classrooms. If parents’ options included moving their child to a learning environment with an instructional approach aligned with their values (i.e., education choice) it seems plausible that the most engaged parents would take that option rather than mire themselves in a protracted political battle over the classroom.

This would reduce the controversy and political conflict over classroom instruction. However, as Forster’s debate partner and AEI scholar Robert Pondiscio points out about families given education choice, “families mostly stay put; they do not switch.” In other words, education choice would lessen the conflict and politicization of the classroom by allowing the most motivated parents to move their children elsewhere, while minimizing the disruption to district public schools because the largest portion of parents will choose to stay in their district school.

As covered in a previous blog post, Utah has a variety of education choice options. However, many of these options remain inaccessible for working families – low-income and middle-income families – with limited resources.

Consequently, improving the education choice landscape to help depoliticize the classroom means expanding or reforming education choice policies and programs to offer more resources to low-income and middle-income families. Five policy options in particular stand out for increasing access to public school, private school and school-at-home education choice options.

  1. Education savings account (ESA) program: An education savings account program with an income limit on eligibility gives both low-income and middle-income parents resources and opportunity to pursue learning options personalized for their child. That could include private school, school at home, online options, tutoring, education therapies for students with specialized learning needs, and more. ESA programs have gained in popularity during the pandemic, with 10 states either currently operating one or creating one via newly passed legislation.

 

  1. School at home tax credit: Establishing a state tax credit for families who school at home would help make that option marginally more affordable for middle-income families. This option could be tied to an ESA program by depositing the tax credit directly into an ESA for families who choose to school at home.

 

  1. Expand 529 tax credit: The federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 allowed savings in a 529 account (higher education savings) to also be used for K-12 private school tuition. Utah currently offers a limited tax credit for income deposited in a 529 account, which due to the federal reforms has become a form of tax credit for attending a private school. Policymakers could expand this tax credit beyond its current level of a few hundred dollars to increase access to private schools for middle-income families.

 

  1. “Turbocharged” child tax credit: AEI scholar Rick Hess recently suggested that states offer matching funds to families who use monthly expanded child tax credit payments for education expenses. The expanded child tax credit is already income-limited by the federal government, so it would target this aid to low-income and middle-income families. It would also greatly expand families’ access not only to education options like private school and school at home, but potentially even public school choice options like open enrollment or public charter schools (e.g., if funds helped parents pay for transportation of their child to a charter school or open enrollment district school).

 

  1. COVID relief funds: States such as Tennessee, Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and South Carolina have used federal COVID relief funding to support public charter schools and expand funding for programs that help low-income students attend a private school that fits their needs. The downside of this policy approach is that this federal funding is temporary. However, the limited nature of those funds offers policymakers an opportunity to pilot education choice programs and then evaluate their impact for consideration for permanent state funding.

This list of five policy ideas is not exhaustive. The policy options for strengthening education choice to help depoliticize the classroom are as varied as the current menu of education choice options in Utah. What’s more, many can be crafted or combined to expand access to public school choice as well as access to a private school or school at home.

Regardless of one’s philosophical, ideological or political disposition toward education choice policies and programs – depoliticizing the classroom by allowing the most motivated families to move their child to a school that aligns with their values is a good outcome for everyone. Public schools/school districts and the students that remain in them will have fewer political controversies to distract from their focus on educating children. Families and students who avail themselves of education choice will be in a learning environment better suited to their particular needs and priorities. Non-district schools (public and private) will have greater stability and support from their communities.

When we depoliticize the classroom, everyone wins.

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