We can, and should, support both education choice and traditional schools

February 28, 2023

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Education choice is sweeping the nation. State legislatures in West Virginia, Arizona, Iowa, and Utah have passed universal education choice scholarships in the past couple of years. Similar legislation is in motion in several other states. What might help education choice policies pass in unlikely territory?

For education choice advocates in states and Congress, efforts at the state level might be instructive: create policies that support all players, sectors, and types of schooling as part of public education.

Legislatively, this means funding and reducing burdens on traditional public schools and their programs and teachers while also finding ways to publicly fund a diversity of education options, schools, and vendors for students who need them.

Public education has typically been synonymous with public schools in geographically assigned districts, while education choice has been synonymous with private school choice.

We need a paradigm shift in which public education is seen simply as a duty to educate all students with taxpayer dollars in whatever way is best for them. Efforts to support district schools, compensate educators, and fund scholarships that help pay for private options can all be part of that public objective.

By contrast, the current paradigm is a zero-sum game in rhetoric and policy, in which some insist that public schools are too broken — even though most parents still choose them — or that education choice drains public schools when research has not demonstrated that to be true.

Utah’s recent success in passing its universal education choice scholarship is a helpful anecdote. For 15 years, the state wouldn’t touch the subject after a referendum killed a universal voucher bill by a wide margin in 2007. After that defeat, pursuing broad education choice was seen by some supporters as a fool’s errand, and it was criticized by the opposition as already rejected.

In 2022, however, an effort was made to enact a universal education choice scholarship in the state. After Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) announced that he would not support the bill so long as teachers were not being adequately paid, a new approach was developed in 2023 that led to victory: increase public school teacher compensation and fund universal education choice.

Today, the margins of support for education choice in Utah are very different than they were during the referendum vote years before. As more families and legislators begin to see choice as a normal part of our approach to public education, support is likely to grow.

Iowa did something similar in passing its universal education choice scholarship this year. Not only did the state propose the scholarship, but its leaders also crafted policies to support multiple sectors of public education, including public schools in rural areas.

When it became clear that rural school districts were not going to be persuaded to support education choice notwithstanding its momentum, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) met with rural leaders to ask what they needed. As a result, the state eased regulations that didn’t make sense for those districts and added flexibility in funding uses so they could pay teachers more and compete with other parts of the state.

Arizona likewise addressed the whole of education when legislators passed, and the governor signed, universal education choice scholarships in 2022. With the expansion of its empowerment scholarship account, K-12 public school funding got a major boost, including more than $600 million of new funding for public school students starting in the 2022-23 school year. This signaled a willingness among Arizona leaders to support all of its students regardless of the education choices they make.

Of course, committing to supporting all students can be an expensive proposition for states, and how schools choose to spend money is more important than how much they get. But investing in public schools can be well worth the investment if the result is an education that works as well as possible for every student.

What these state successes show is that reform is possible when all sectors and options are seen as part of the state’s duty to educate the next generation. A paradigm shift about what we mean by public education may be the secret to success for education choice programs.

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