Good News About Education Reform? Just Look Around

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Those debating reforms to American education should remember this memorial to Sir Christopher Wren, architect of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wren is buried inside his masterpiece with no marking for his resting place other than the inscription: If you seek a monument, look around.

Some education reform advocates are starting to wonder whether the long battle to increase parental choice in schooling (among other things) is really making a difference, particularly in light of the growing criticism of public charter schools. Despite recent victories giving students more opportunities in education, Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently accused education reform advocates of “cowardice”— of having lost their will to fight.

Yet, in states around the country, families and advocates still struggle on students’ behalf. Parental choice in education has seen great success, and stories of students’ changed lives and parents’ and policymakers’ acts of courage are all around us.

Let’s start in Washington State. In 2015, a successful union lawsuit shut down the state’s new charter school law. Prior to the ruling, unionized Seattle teachers went on strike just as the school year began, leaving charter schools the only public schools in the city open for business. District schools forced students to stay home, disrupting their educations and family life, while charter school students and teachers showed up ready to learn and work. Earlier this year, lawmakers and parents banded together to change state law yet again in order to keep charter schools operating — a victory for reformers. Now sights have turned to Mississippi, where Governor Phil Bryant is defending charter schools from opponents trying to close them down.

North Carolina lawmakers removed the cap on how many charter schools can open in the state in 2011, causing a “boom” in such schools, according to the Charlotte Observer. Attention has turned to Massachusetts, where parents and advocates are gearing up for a ballot initiative in November to raise the cap on charter schools in the state. A recent poll shows that parents support lifting the cap by a 3-1 margin.

Charter schools are just the beginning. Elsewhere, in just the last two years, lawmakers in almost two dozen states have introduced nearly 40 pieces of legislation to create or expand public and private learning options through education savings accounts. Parents can use the accounts to choose multiple opportunities simultaneously, such as online classes and personal tutors, thus customizing their child’s education.

Since 2011, lawmakers in five states have enacted such accounts. In Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi, children with special needs can use them to pay for educational therapies and private schools, to name a few possible uses. And lawmakers in Arizona and Nevada enacted far-reaching provisions that allow hundreds of thousands of children from different walks of life to access these accounts.

The Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice successfully defended Arizona’s education savings accounts in court from a teachers’ union challenge in 2014, and now the Institute for Justice is defending Nevada’s law from a similar challenge. Around the nation, there seems to be plenty of fight left in these reformers.

These successes at the state level are not lost on Congress. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has introduced legislation to allow Native American students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools — some of the lowest performing schools in the country — access to education savings accounts. Former presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced a similar education savings account bill for students in Washington, D.C.

The Fordham Institute — Pondiscio’s own institution — hosted an event last month featuring a report card that ranks two dozen private school choice opportunities in the various states. It shows that the number of private school choice options in the U.S. has doubled in the last six years.

One can only conclude that “reform has lost its mojo” if one ignores what’s happening in every one of these states. Opposition to parental efforts to ensure a quality education for the nation’s children might make headlines, but it will only slow us down if we let it.

– Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

This blog entry first appeared on Real Clear Policy.

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