We need to create choice in K-12 education

June 8, 2021

As the school year comes to a close, children are looking forward to getting out of the classroom and into camps, vacations, and summer activities. Parents are reflecting on the past year and preparing for the one ahead — especially in light of the problems that the pandemic exposed in schooling.

This year showed us that the school system is failing many parents. But in addition to highlighting some of the deep-rooted problems in our education system, it’s also highlighted the ingenuity of parents who want better for their children.

Over this past year, nearly 9 in 10 parents worried about their children falling behind academically. While 58% of parents have reported they are considering changing their child’s form of education, another 20% report they have already made a change.

Parents want change, and students need change — and it is past time that we give it to them.

Our one-size-fits-all model has long funded systems, not students. Our programs, while well intentioned, have failed to give struggling families and students the options and the assistance they deserve.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to create opportunities for low-income students by providing funding that would increase “quality and equality” in education. Since then, federal involvement and spending in K-12 education have expanded, reaching $85 billion in 2018 and accounting for roughly 8% of all K-12 spending nationwide.

But unfortunately, decades’ worth of research has shown that the ESEA has made little to no progress in improving the academic outcomes or opportunities for those it’s intended to serve. Because ESEA dollars must go through a formulaic maze that siphons off money to bureaucracy and administrative costs, a maze so complex that only a few bureaucrats could explain where these funds actually go, it does not allow for students and families to hold schools accountable for the education being provided to them.

As a result, low-income children for whom the aid is intended never see a dollar. The money flows to school districts with no consideration for children’s individual needs, whether financial or academic, no accountability for schools in either their performances or outcomes, and no input from parents.

Our K-12 funds should be directed to students, not bureaucratic systems. And they ought to reflect the reality that children have the best academic success when their parents or legal guardians are empowered to make decisions that best meet their children’s needs and when they are involved in the learning process. After all, children’s first and most important teachers in life are their parents.

That’s why I’ve introduced a bill called the Children Have Opportunities in Classrooms Everywhere Act, or CHOICE Act, to modernize how, and to whom, we distribute our K-12 resources.

My bill would allow low-income families with children in grades K-12 to apply for federal education funds that they can choose to put toward the public schools in which their children are enrolled or toward an education savings account, known as a 529 account.

It would also expand the qualified expenses for 529 accounts so they could be used for private-school tuition, virtual learning, private tutors, home-schooling curricula, therapy services, and more.

As a result, parents, legal guardians, community leaders, and low-income students would have more leverage to hold schools accountable, and students would be better equipped to pursue postsecondary education and enter the workforce.

The pandemic has made clearer than ever that it’s time we stop funding an education system that excludes parents and hurts disadvantaged children. Instead, we need to ensure that our education funds are actually made available to students and families of all stripes and that they are empowered to use them in a way that best meets their unique needs.

As we look ahead to the fall, parents want options. They want the ability to “vote with their feet” against the policies that sacrificed their children’s education during the pandemic, and rightfully so. This coming school year, we can help provide them those options by passing the CHOICE Act.

Op-ed originally published by the Washington Examiner