COMMENTARY: America is choosing education freedom, as the future rushes in

OKLAHOMA CITY — You might say, in the immortal words of Charles Dickens, that when it comes to education reform, particularly choice, these are “the best of times, and the worst of times. “

On the down side, endless legal challenges continue to arise every time a choice system is enacted or implemented. 

On the upside is the ever-expanding scope of educational options for those most and in need and, increasingly, for all children.

While many existing programs focus on assisting children with special needs, an increasing number empower all children and parents to access the educational system of their choice. 

Often is heard the expression, “School choice is not a panacea.”

Well, nothing in this fallen world is a panacea. There will always be new challenges and difficulties, even in the best-designed systems, administered by the best-intentioned people. But too many public school districts are poorly-designed and administered by people determined to deny parents and children effective options. 

Despite opposition, America is in the midst of a Renaissance of options destined to transform positively every aspect of American schooling. 

To capture this diversity, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice hosted an afternoon of news, information and conversation at the recent State Policy Network meeting in Oklahoma City. While some SPN sessions were off-the-record, this one was open to the public and to reporters. 

There are now 14 tax-credit scholarship programs in 11 states, as well as 18 outright voucher systems in 12 states and in the nation’s capital city. Individual tax credits and deductions to support choice exist in six states.

In Arizona, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are providing a means for nearly all children to access better schools – public and private. 

The Arizona program holds the greatest promise for the future. There is now in place a rational system of accountability. The Arizona ESA system is still relatively small in numbers of students – but it is doubling every year. 

And, there’s good news: On Oct. 1, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ESA. The majority opinion held the program “enhances the ability of parents of disabled children to choose how best to provide for their educations, whether in or out of private schools. No funds in the ESA are earmarked for private schools. Thus, we hold that the ESA does not violate” the Arizona constitution.

The case now moves to the state Supreme Court. 

The Louisiana “Course Choice” program, pioneered by Gov. Bobby Jindal, drew several thousand participants in its first weeks. It allows use of tax resources to get students online or other access to courses they might otherwise miss. The most popular subject areas in the early wave are Spanish, math, algebra, biology and civics.

Initial enthusiasm among Louisiana’s advocates was dampened somewhat in late summer, when the program empowering thousands of high-schoolers came under direct attack from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration. 

In his public remarks at SPN, Gov. Jindal promised he will fight for the program, all the way. 

Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program for special needs children has been in place for three years. 
It won an important procedural decision in 2012, but is under renewed attack from a group of anti-choice educators seeking a declaratory judgment that it violates the Oklahoma state Constitution. 

The line-up of stellar speakers at SPN included, on a panel moderated by Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Jeff Spaulding of the Friedman Foundation, who examined the positive impact of choice program on public school finances.

Analyst Collin Hitt distilled the depressing story of public education in Chicago, where taxpayers spend $14,386 per student, compared to an average of just $8,000 spent in the Windy City’s parochial schools. 

Hitt pointed to a $700 million increase in Illinois school spending last year. In all, $600 million of that went to finance pension benefits for current public school teacher retirees.

Over time, Hitt argued, only education choice can provide long-term savings to taxpayers — and certainty for participating teachers that a nest egg will be waiting for them upon retirement. 

Lindsay Burke, of the Heritage Foundation, detailed the intriguing range of choices being exercised in the nascent Arizona program. While 65.5 percent of participants make a “traditional” choice – to access a private school — an impressive 34.5 percent are making what she characterized as “customized choices,” including tutoring, online course work, textbooks, testing, therapy and curriculum options. 

The gurus of choice at the Friedman Foundation and their allies. including Dr. Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute, note that the push for more choice is slowly filling the capacity of existing schools or “seats.” Over the next decade, the challenge is to encourage high-quality schools to expand and create brand new systems. 

Anyone who spends a few years studying education in America will hear the frequent mantra about the importance of meeting every child where they are in terms of ability, learning styles and so forth. Yet the government system’s rigidity and lack of rigor often conspires against these noble sentiments.

Educational choice is fulfilling the promise of content delivery aimed at every child. and in every setting. 

Freedom is the future. Time to embrace it. 

This essay is adapted from McGuigan’s commentary in the October 2013 edition of Perspective Magazine, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. You may contact Pat