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The Case for Universal School Choice

Income-targeted programs deliver quality education to marginalized student groups. But all parents need to be able to choose how their children are taught, and more states are going universal.

Public-private school signs
In an already astonishing year for advancing educational freedom, Pennsylvania closed out its legislative calendar in 2023 by passing the largest expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship programs.

The political significance of Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, signing a $150 million expansion to a private educational choice program with a split legislature is noteworthy. With a few exceptions, nearly all school choice enactments and expansions to date nationwide have taken place under a red trifecta of the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers. This is welcome affirmation for a movement that has long declared what we know is true: Expanding educational options for families is not, nor should it be, a partisan issue. Rather, choice cuts across political, geographic and demographic lines.

Pennsylvania’s school choice programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, have indeed been transformative for many families. Pennsylvania is among 20 states plus Washington, D.C., with income-targeted programs that are intended to serve low- and middle-income students. For the most part, these states have had success delivering quality education to marginalized student groups.

Perhaps surprisingly, states are increasingly passing robust, universally eligible — rather than targeted — choice programs available to all or nearly all students. Arizona and West Virginia were the first states to go universal, in 2022, followed by eight more states in 2023. Now one in five students live in a state with universal or near-universal choice.

Why are states increasingly pursuing choice for all, instead of choice for some?

• Parents want more options, and choice is popular. According polling by Morning Consult, 39 percent of parents would choose their regular public school and 54 percent would choose some other school type, such as a private school, charter school or home schooling. Some 52 percent of parents would prefer to educate their child at home at least one day per week. Black parents especially want this kind of flexibility, with 61 percent responding that they prefer at least one day of education per week in the home.

People prefer a program that serves all families, rather than programs that serve some. An enormous 76 percent agreed that education savings accounts should be available to all families, regardless of income and special needs.

• Universally available programs create new markets — new schools and new providers. Two years ago, you’d likely never have heard the term “microschooling.” But with the advancement of broadly available education savings account programs in Arizona, Florida and West Virginia, educators are increasingly seeking to enter the market to serve families in new ways — whether as school leaders, tutors, disability specialists or other roles and providers.

• Universal programs create the broadest constituency. The tragic case of Illinois’ Invest In Kids scholarship program provides ample warning of the importance of a broad constituency. The program serves more than 9,500 low-income, largely minority students from the Chicago area. Yet policymakers abandoned these students, who stand to lose their scholarships, not only at great personal cost to the families but also straining the local public school system with the inevitable influx of students whose needs were being served by private schools. Universally eligible programs, like Social Security, are rarely threatened politically because the voter base is broad and motivated.

They reduce hoops for administrators and families. More layers of targeted program eligibility create more work for families to apply and more work for administrators to vet who qualifies. Proving low-income status creates a disincentive for families to apply, unfortunately deterring the very students the program is intended to help.

• Expanding choice benefits students without harming students who remain in public schools. Arizona and Florida, longtime leaders in education reform, are also leaders in academic growth for low-income students and students with disabilities. For decades, these states have had choice programs and have increasingly expanded them to families over the years. As it turns out, it’s not just the wealthy that benefit. Rather, students with disadvantaged circumstances have been the ones who benefit from broad-eligibility systems.

And what about students who remain in public schools? Opponents often decry harm to the public school system. Yet rigorous research finds that expanding choice programs in terms of funding and eligibility leads to not only increases in academic growth among public school students but also reduced absenteeism and suspensions. And choice overall, when designed right, improves student outcomes for both participants and public school students.

The best way to help marginalized students is not through targeted programs, but rather through universally eligible programs. And when any student is served well by any school, whether that be public, private, home school or something else, that’s a win worth celebrating.

©2024 Tribune News Service. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Martin F. Lueken is the director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to advance educational freedom and choice for all students. Marc LeBlond is the director of policy at EdChoice.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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