by Kristin L. Allen, Virginia Education Coalition, LLC
Parents have a dim view of American education’s direction. According to Jason Bedrick in “Americans Want Choice, Not Government Mandates” (EducationNext, June 2014), “Nearly six out of ten say that K-12 education is on the ‘wrong track’ compared with only one-third who said it is going the ‘right-direction’.”
Virginia parents’ concerns are founded. Over the past 40 years, the cost of Virginia K-12 education has risen 20% in inflation adjusted dollars, while SAT scores – a measure of a student’s ability to be successful in college – have remained flat or declined. Education as a whole consumes more than one-third of the state’s budget. In fact, no correlation exists between Virginia’s increased spending and academic achievement. In September 2014, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that more than 30% of Virginia K-12 schools fail to meet full accreditation standards.
Parents have responded by demanding more choice in how their children are educated. Since 2011, dubbed “the year of school choice” by the Wall Street Journal, states have adopted 24 new school-choice laws and expanded 33 existing choice programs, including voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs. None have been legislatively repealed. Surprisingly, a recent Friedman Foundation survey found that support for school-choice tax-credit laws was highest among groups that traditionally vote for Democrats, including low income Americans (67 percent), younger people (74 percent), blacks (72 percent), and Hispanics (80 percent). In a 2009 survey of Virginia parents, 35 percent of parents say they would like to send their children to a private school and nine percent would like to homeschool their children. At the time of the survey, only nine percent attended private school and two percent were homeschooled. An additional ten percent would select a voucher program, if it were available. In the same survey, Virginians – independent of party affiliation – favored the creation of a tax-credit scholarship program by a margin of 65 percent to 23 percent.
Most important, parental choice in education improves education outcomes. Fifty-six statistically valid studies since 1998 have found that school choice has positive impact on student academic outcomes, public school academic performance, cost reduction, racial de-segregation, and promotion of civic values and practices. According to the author, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation, “School choice improves academic outcomes by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs, and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And [sic] it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and the respect of rights to others.”
Virginia has been slow to respond to parental demand for choice in education. The homeschool population in Virginia is doubling every ten years. If Virginia homeschoolers were in their own school district, it would be the ninth largest in Virginia, behind the city of Norfolk. Today, many families who choose to opt out of a failing public school, choose homeschooling because it is the most financially viable option for them. Clearly, both polls and the actual growth in homeschool population suggest that 44 percent of parents – if they had the financial means – would select either a private school or a homeschool education as a path forward for their child.
Virginia’s legislative response has been to cautiously follow other states’ lead. Inspired by the State of Florida, Virginia enacted in 2012 an Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) program for lower income students’ families. In its first full year, the EISTC generated approximately $2.3M in donations. These donations represent a potential 400 to 500 scholarships, out of a total Virginia school population of approximately 1.2 million. EISTC scholarships can only be applied toward offsetting private school tuition. This is a small start, and it needs to be expanded.
This year, Virginia Delegate Dave LaRock (R-33) has reintroduced a Parental Choice Education Savings Account (PCESA) bill (HB389) that provides parental choice in education options for K-12 public school students. The PCESA program is modeled after Arizona’s successful Empowerment Savings Account (AESA) program and expands the use of the funds to meet the specific needs of the child across the full range of education modes.
The proposed PCESA program will require parents to sign an agreement with the State that requires the parent(s) to withdraw a qualifying student from a public school and, in return, receive 90 percent of the State’s Standards of Quality portion of the per pupil education funding – on average approximately $3,625 out of a total per pupil expenditure of $11,242 . This funding is deposited quarterly to a restricted use, self-adjudicating savings account. The contract will require the parents to agree to provide the student with instruction in accordance with nonpublic educational alternatives currently allowed by Virginia Code, which includes private school and homeschool options. Monies not used in a year, can be invested in a Coverdell savings plan and used to offset prospective college tuition. Parents must submit expenditure receipts quarterly, prior to receiving funds for the next quarter. Monies not used for K-12 educational purposes by age 22 are returned to the State.
Virginia Education Coalition supports Delegate LaRock’s proposed legislation. The PCESA approach will expand Virginia parents’ choice in education, which is being demanded by an ethnically and politically diverse majority of voting Virginia parents. The PCESA will save tax payers money by eliminating, on average, $4,100 in taxpayer per pupil cost, while still funding the fixed cost of public school operations ($3,112 per pupil). Last, PCESA and other school choice programs have demonstrated through numerous studies and growing demand that they deliver superior education outcomes, which is what every parent wants.
A growing number of parents recognize the wisdom of Milton Friedman, who said, “It is important to distinguish between ‘schooling’ and ‘education.’ Not all schooling is education nor all education, schooling. The proper subject of concern is education.” It is time for the Virginia General Assembly to provide Virginians with the choice they demand and the education their children deserve.
Mr. Allen is President of Virginia Education Coalition, LLC (VEC). VEC is an alliance of individuals and organizations that supports parent-led, student-centered education reform. VEC promotes policies and programs that deliver better student educational performance at reduced cost. VEC believes that these objectives are best achieved through parental choice in education; transparent, open dialogue between parents, students, and teachers; and policies and programs that encourage maximum personal freedom and responsibility.