The Education Battlefield

As we transition into 2023, we can see that the field of education will once again be a contentious one, as too many government-run schools are failing, and parents are not happy. In Chicago, for example, great numbers of students are avoiding their local schools. In fact, more than one-third of the city’s public schools are at least half empty, with high schools the most vacant. Douglas High School has a capacity of 888 students, but only 34 students are enrolled. Manley High School can seat 1,296 students, but just 70 attend. On the K-8 level, the Mason School can accommodate 1,710 kids, but has only 187 enrollees.

With 11 percent of black and 17 percent of Hispanic students reading at grade level in Chicago, the above numbers should not come as a surprise. And the funding hawks can’t whine about money as the district has now increased its spending to over $29,000 per student—a 40 percent jump since 2019.

California isn’t much better than Chicago, where just 34 percent of the state’s 4th graders scored proficient in math on the pre-pandemic 2019 NAEP, placing the state 44th nationwide. The formerly Golden State also has the lowest literacy rate in the country. While that may be due in part to a large immigrant population, other similar states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida have fewer illiterates.

And like Chicago, California can’t use a lack of money as an excuse. Even before the latest barrage of post-pandemic money, California was in the middle of the spending pack nationally, yet way below average in student proficiency. And families are noticing. Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, public school enrollment in California dropped by more than 175,000 students.

As always, the progressive teachers unions, channeling George Wallace, are standing in the schoolhouse door doing their best to stifle educational freedom.

In Chicago, the union is doing what it can to kill the popular Invest in Kids Act, which provides a private school choice for families who are trying to escape their local public school. The Chicago Teachers Union asserts that public funds should be used for public education.

The union is wrong, of course. The Invest in Kids Act is a tax credit scholarship program, which means that it is funded with private pretax dollars.

Unlike Chicago, California has no private option, and the mighty California Teachers Association will do everything in its power to keep the status quo intact.

The CTA website purports to give us “facts, based on research.” But, in reality, their “facts” are cherry picked. For instance, CTA claims that “Voucher programs are associated with reduced educational outcomes.” The union goes on to cite a few outlier studies which support their case, but overall, privatization works. Ty Cobb struck out on occasion also, but looking at the whole, Ty Cobb and school choice have been raving successes. As researcher Greg Forster reports, the latest empirical school choice research finds that of 19 studies, 14 showed positive results and two found no difference. (Due to design flaws in the D.C. and Louisiana programs, three studies showed negative effects.)

Also, at a speech to the union’s State Council in October, 2021, CTA President E. Toby Boyd proclaimed, “Vouchers Rear Their Ugly Heads: Two school voucher initiatives have been submitted in hopes of qualifying for the November 2022 ballot. Both would use public funds to send students to private and religious schools, taking money and vital resources away from public schools.”

Voters in California had rejected school vouchers twice before, but there was hope of passage this time. Sadly however, neither initiative made it to the ballot.

One of the unions’ most specious arguments is that choice hurts public schools. But as Greg Forster points out, a large body of empirical research finds that “school choice programs improve educational outcomes both for students who use them and students who remain in public schools

Also, a recent study found that in Florida, students attending public schools have higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates when there is a private option available. The effects are “particularly pronounced for lower-income students, but results are positive for more affluent students as well.”

Union pushback aside, the new year looks promising for school choice. As Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, explains, “All eyes will be on states with GOP trifectas in 2023, including Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Arizona was able to go all-in with one-seat GOP majorities in each chamber. If Arizona could do it with the slimmest of GOP majorities, all other red states should be able to empower families with universal school choice, too.”

Education freedom was a significant issue in many state legislative races in the recent election, notably Iowa and Texas, where incumbents lost primary elections against candidates who favored expanding school choice programs.

DeAngelis notes that in 2021, “18 states expanded or enacted programs to fund students instead of systems. 2023 is shaping up to be another banner year, especially after the school choice wave in the midterms.” DeAngelis adds that “76% of candidates supported by my organization, the American Federation for Children and its affiliates, won their races in 2022. We also targeted 69 incumbents and took out 40 of them. But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at the liberal tears in The New Yorker magazine when they lamented that ‘education freedom’ candidates ‘fared depressingly well’ in the midterms. Perhaps we will call 2023 the year of education freedom.”

Worth noting is that in Pennsylvania, new Democratic governor Josh Shapiro has supported the concept of choice, and it is believed that he will get behind Lifeline Scholarships. This program would grant about $7,000 from already-existing education funds to students in low-performing schools to transfer to another school. The money could be used to pay for tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and other education expenses, and students could enroll in a public or private school.

While school board races were a mixed bag in 2022, parents did in fact make great strides in that area. But as important as these races are, what do traditional parents do if they live in a city or town that has a gender-obsessed and/or a CRT-riddled school board? Moving, of course, is an option, but a system of universal choice is clearly preferable.

With National School Choice Week set to begin on January 22, educational freedom is sure to be in the news in the coming weeks. The battle is on and things are moving in a positive direction, but vigilance is a must. The enemy of choice – the teachers unions – will do everything in their power to maintain their monopoly.

About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post

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