by Lowman S. Henry | September 14, 2021

As parents become more and more frustrated with school schedules disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates, and Left-wing indoctrination such as Critical Race Theory being taught to their children, support for school choice options is on the rise.

There is no doubt public education, both K-12 and university level, is badly broken.  Taxpayers continue to pour ever increasing amounts of money into systems that gobble up funds, fail to yield improved outcomes, and then demand even more money.

Even worse, in an era when the spotlight is on racial equality, K-12 public education in Pennsylvania traps minority youth in under-performing schools with no way out.  That has given rise to a unique coalition of school choice advocates bringing together conservatives and many Black leaders – unified around the belief that the best way to level the playing field for people of all colors is to receive a quality education.

The Washington, D.C. based Club for Growth recently launched a National Campaign for School Choice.  In so doing it commissioned a nationwide poll.  It found that re-branding the debate as “school freedom” and talking in terms of “school choice scholarships” resulted in a higher level of support and more accurately describes the movement.

The poll further found that there has been a 12% drop in overall satisfaction with the nation’s public schools since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in a five percent jump in overall support for school choice – school freedom – since 2015, and a 10-point surge among Democrats. When asked who is “at fault” for our faltering public school system poll respondents first blamed politicians (70%), 53% placed the blame on union bosses.

Over the years there have been many legislative efforts aimed at providing parents with more freedom to select the educational option that is best for their child.  The latest proposal is sponsored by State Representative Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin) and it would redirect billions of dollars in public school funding into individual scholarship accounts for each child.

According to The Center Square, the Excellent Education for All Act would “allow families to use the roughly $6,000 per student the state pays to afford tuition at private, parochial and charter schools.”  It also proposes some reforms to charter schools, bolsters tax credit scholarship programs, and preserves some options that were developed to deal with the pandemic.

In introducing the bill Lewis said “Pennsylvania is fortunate to have fantastic schools that come in different forms.  If passed House Bill 1 would give families access to scholarships that give them more options.”  And that is precisely what the Club for Growth poll found parents are seeking: the freedom to select the educational opportunity that best suits their child’s individual needs.

Some progress toward that goal was made in the current fiscal year’s state budget.  Lawmakers successfully increased the cap on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC) by $40 million.  That program provides tax credits of up to $750,000 to businesses that donate money toward scholarships for private schools.  It, however, is relatively small given the overall state basic education budget tops $7 billion.

The need to provide more flexibility in education does not end at the K-12 level.  Changing occupational needs, along with a smaller student base, have scrambled the market for higher education. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE) is restructuring and merging some campuses due to fiscal challenges and declining enrollment.  Interest in technical schools and community colleges is growing as students confront the skyrocketing costs of a four-year degree.

To provide more flexibility State Representative Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland) has introduced the Pennsylvania College Voucher Program.  The Center Square reports that this program would redirect more than $580 million state taxpayer dollars that is currently allocated exclusively to  the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Penn State University directly to students in the form of grants that could be used at technical schools, community colleges, PSSHE schools, private colleges or major universities.

All of these initiatives are efforts to provide parents and students with the freedom to select the educational opportunity – either K-12 or higher education – that best suits their individual needs and career goals.  And while there is clear public support for moving state policy in this direction powerful vested, and frequently failing, special interests stand in the way.

But the time has come to give students and parents the financial freedom to choose. We can do that by funding students rather than by funding school districts or specific institutions of higher learning.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected])

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