April 28, 2016 Print

More than 2,500 school choice supporters marched through Montgomery, Ala., led by Kevin P. Chavous of the American Federation for Children and civil rights leader Dr. Howard Fuller as a part of the 2015 National School Choice Week celebrations taking place across the country. Photo credit: American Federation for Children

A quality education is crucial for children to succeed in life, but far too many public schools throughout the United States are failing — and kids remain trapped inside a system that doesn’t serve their needs. American Federation for Children (AFC), an Atlas Network partner based in Washington, D.C., is working to change that by advancing school choice policies that allow parents to choose the best educational options for their children. This week, the organization released the latest edition of its School Choice Yearbook, which provides details on school choice programs throughout the country.

“Momentum for giving parents access to all educational options has never been stronger,” said John Schilling, chief operating officer for AFC. “Today, 25 states plus the District of Columbia have 50 private school choice programs serving almost 400,000 children. The movement has doubled in every important category — numbers of kids, states, programs, public money — over the last five years.”

One of the fastest-growing school choice programs, Schilling explained, is education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow families to use their state-allotted K–12 funding for a variety of educational expenses, including private school tuition.

“Currently, five states have ESA programs, though only Arizona and Nevada have programs for non-special needs students,” Schilling said. “This is educational choice 2.0, and our movement is really energized about the possibilities of ESAs. Still, every state will be different. Some states without private school choice programs may opt for an ESA, or a tax credit scholarship, or a voucher program depending on their individual state constitutions and the make-up of the legislative coalition. AFC continues to rely on our partners at the Institute for Justice to determine which type of private school choice program is most likely to survive the inevitable legal challenge in a given state.”

These legal challenges are a significant hurdle to passing new school choice programs and keeping them alive and thriving to serve all the children who need them.

“Virtually every time private school choice legislation is enacted, the education establishment, led by the teachers’ unions, sues,” Schilling said. “Fortunately, our movement has been very successful in protecting these programs, most recently in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and North Carolina. The newest and most ambitious ESA program in Nevada is currently in litigation, and the teachers’ union is suing to end the Florida tax credit scholarship program, threatening the educational futures of 80,000 low-income children.”

The fact that these programs keep succeeding, both in legislatures and in the courts, means that many school choice programs are struggling with capacity and barriers to entry.

“With all of the legislative success in the last five years, there are more than 3 million ‘scholarship opportunities’ based on the parameters of current laws,” Schilling said. “There are not 3 million available seats in private schools. AFC is leading an effort to tackle the issue of private school supply, and parallel efforts to remove barriers that are preventing children from entering current programs and ensure high quality bill designs for new states or programs, which will maximize participation.”

AFC began its Center for Innovation as a project that examines private school capacity, with the ultimate goal of facilitating new seats and schools, and eliminating the array of restrictions that prevent students from participating in existing programs.

“We are working with allies, school leaders, and groups dedicated to increasing the supply of high-quality private schools and seats,” Schilling said. “Directly related to this effort are the parallel efforts to remove barriers. In many states, the scholarship amounts for private school choice programs are too low, even well below the per-pupil amounts for charter schools. In addition, many private school choice programs have limited eligibility, whereas charter schools can take children from any economic background. While AFC is steadfast in its belief that low-income families — the families who currently lack choice and whose children are trapped in failing schools — should be at the front of the line, we also believe that real choice should be available to working-class and middle-class families in order for them to choose the best educational environment for their children.”

Schilling recounted the story of a woman from one of those working-class families, Denisha Merriweather, who benefited from school choice as a child and has gone on to become a powerful advocate for other children to benefit the type of program that allowed her to escape poverty and build a better life.

“Denisha was fortunate enough to participate in the Florida tax credit scholarship program and was the first person in her family to attend college,” Schilling said. “Thanks to the Florida program, she escaped what could have been a very difficult life of poverty in a rough neighborhood. With her scholarship she went on to graduate college and now gives back by talking about the importance of these options for other students, not only in Florida but around the country. She recently appeared in an ad defending the Florida tax credit scholarship program from the teachers’ union lawsuit, and testified before the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee about her incredible story.”

AFC is able to remain focused on the challenges at hand, and to prevail in its efforts, by remembering its vision for the future, a world where educational choice is the norm rather than a continual struggle.

“It’s a world where every child has access to the educational environment that best meets his or her individual needs,” Schilling said. “It’s a world where policymakers, parents, and educators have said ‘Enough!’ to an antiquated K–12 system that for too long has placed the interests of adults before the interests of children. It’s a world with innovative K–12 educational options where money follows the child to the public, private, virtual, or blended environment of their parents’ choice. It’s a world where every child graduates from high school and fully prepared for college, the workforce, vocational education, or the military.”

Hundreds of students benefiting from Arizona’s many school choice programs joined together to celebrate National School Choice Week in January 2016 at a rally near the Capitol. Arizona boasts a wide variety of educational options including charter schools, education savings accounts, tuition tax credit programs and open enrollment. Photo credit: American Federation for Children