Greg Forster, Ph.D. | September 29, 2021
Seize the moment to give families a universal ESA in 2022
The excuse that we can’t do the right thing because it’s too politically difficult, while never especially savory, has now become positively untenable.
There has never been a better time for Oklahoma leaders to give every family in the state control over their children’s education. The time is always right to do what is right, but momentum for school choice has also never been stronger. Since 2021 was “the year of school choice,” the political landscape is primed for Oklahoma to enact a universal Education Savings Account (ESA) in 2022.
This spring, Michael McShane and Jason Bedrick of EdChoice predicted that 2021 would be “the year of school choice.” They saw that the stars were aligning for massive progress in education policy. And the results of the legislative season for states—which takes place in the first half of the year—proved them resoundingly right.
The pandemic is one reason so many new and expanded school choice programs were enacted in 2021. Starting when the pandemic hit in early 2020, the government school monopoly consistently ignored the wishes of parents and the best interests of children in order to do whatever served the whims of the system’s various political constituencies. The bottomless selfishness of the educational special interests, like teacher and staff unions, competed for public opprobrium with the spineless impotence and disarray of the school boards and other governing authorities whose job it was to rein the special interests in.
A sharp increase in polarization over the teaching of history and civics in 2020 also set the stage for school choice to begin triumphing in 2021. Large numbers of parents lost confidence that the government school monopoly could be trusted to teach the classic liberal principles that undergird our social order committed to universal human rights and constitutional democracy under the rule of law. Contributing factors included a sudden new prominence of extreme illiberal ideologies, and the willingness of mainstream institutions to airbrush away, or even to justify openly, violent lawlessness. (When you do it, it’s a “riot” or an “insurrection,” but when I do it, it’s a “fiery but mostly peaceful protest” or an “autonomous zone.”)
As the nation was debating COVID masks, for millions of Americans it was a different kind of mask that came off the government school monopoly. Parents were not exactly naïve about the government school monopoly going in; Americans had fewer illusions about the system at the start of 2020 than in 1980 or even in 2000. But from the sudden and sharp turn in public opinion during the year, it seems they hadn’t yet realized how bad things were.
And so McShane and Bedrick were resoundingly vindicated. In the first half of 2021, seven states—including Oklahoma neighbors Arkansas and Missouri—enacted new school-choice programs. Five of these were ESAs, which give parents an account they can use to pay for educational expenses like private-school tuition or tutoring services. The other two were tax-credit scholarships, which give donors a tax credit for contributing to scholarship funds that help students attend private schools.
That’s far from all. Fourteen states expanded 21 existing school choice programs in the first half of 2021. Oklahoma was one of these states, expanding the cap on its tax-credit scholarship program from $3.5 million to $25 million. Neighboring Arkansas and Kansas expanded student eligibility in their school-choice programs, allowing more students to access choice.
In all, 18 states enacted or expanded 30 school-choice programs. There are now 76 total school-choice programs—and counting!—in 32 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. These programs serve over 600,000 students
Giving parents control over their children’s education is the right thing to do. It’s the education policy that aligns both with human nature—we are made to be raised and educated in families, by parents, so schools should function as extensions of the family and not of government—as well as the historic self-understanding of the American people in their dream that diverse people can live together, free and equal. And there is no wrong time to do the right thing.
But 2022 is also shaping up to provide unique opportunities to those who waited long for justice. Parents and voters are making their support clear. The excuse that we can’t do the right thing because it’s too politically difficult, while never especially savory, has now become positively untenable. If not now, when?
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).