The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act is assailed by some as the end of parental choice. Although it contains no provision for transferring children out of schools failing to meet performance goals for two consecutive years, that conclusion is a gross distortion of reality.
Despite voter rejection of vouchers or their variants by an average margin of 2 to 1 in 28 referendums from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014, parents still have the right to send their children at public expense to any school they believe best meets their needs and interests. These avenues include tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts and charter schools.
In 2011, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s program that offers a dollar-for-dollar reduction of state income tax payments to organizations supporting religious schools was constitutional. A wave of similar plans in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island make more than 750,000 students eligible.
The latest state giving parents the right to exercise choice was Nevada, which enacted its Universal Education Savings Accounts law in June. Under the plan, the state sets aside funds that would otherwise be used to educate students in a traditional public school. Parents can then tap the funds to tailor their children’s education.
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Only vouchers face an uphill battle. For example, in June the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the state’s one-of-a-kind voucher program, ruling that it violated the state constitution’s prohibition on using public money to fund religious schools.
By far the most popular form of parental choice is the charter school. Such schools are publicly funded but exempt from some rules governing traditional schools. Most are non-union. Since 1991, when Minnesota adopted the first charter-school law, the movement has slowly spread. Today there are 207 charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than in any other school system in the country.
Although more than 100,000 students, or about 16 percent of L.A. pupils, are already in charter schools, plans are underway to create 260 more in the next six years, bringing into the fold at least 130,000 more students. Nationwide, about 2.5 million, or 5.1 percent of public-school students, were enrolled in charters at last count. That’s up substantially from 300,000, or 0.7 percent, in 1999-2000.
Still, the supply of charter schools has not kept pace with demand by parents who are frustrated and angry over the glacial pace of improvement in traditional public schools. Even in Massachusetts, known for the quality of its public schools, at least 37,000 families are on waiting lists.
The argument most frequently made against parental choice is that it is unfair. Children whose parents are most involved in their education will benefit most, while less fortunate children will continue to be trapped in failing schools. Those left behind are often characterized by parental-choice advocates as unavoidable collateral damage.
But ethicists explain that parents can advocate for their own children while still fighting for others without feeling guilty. That’s why the parental-choice movement will continue to grow in popularity. The Every Student Succeeds Act will serve only to engender more innovative approaches.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.