As School Year Begins, Kids Have More Educational Options

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School is back in session—or will be soon—for students across America. As they head back to the classroom, many of our children will encounter a different environment this year.

With debates about mask mandates and critical race theory garnering headlines, another underreported story is reshaping American education. Corey DeAngelis, national research director for the American Federation for Children, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share the good news for parents and students alike.

DeAngelis calls 2021 the “year of school choice,” with upward of 17 states giving parents more options to make decisions that benefit their kids. These new school choice programs fund students, giving them the educational freedom to learn in an environment best for them.

In addition to being a prolific school choice advocate at the American Federation for Children, DeAngelis is executive director at Educational Freedom Institute, an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute, and a senior fellow at Reason Foundation. (Follow his work on Twitter: @DeAngelisCorey.)

Listen to our interview or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Corey DeAngelis. He's the national director of research for the American Federation of Children and a tireless advocate for school choice in America. Corey, thanks for being with us.

Corey DeAngelis: Thank you so much for having me.

Bluey: There is a lot to talk about. Kids are heading back to school as we speak all across America. You see big changes on the horizon in American education. In fact, you've called 2021, the year of school choice and educational freedom. What is the state of play?

DeAngelis: Yeah, I'll say the reason for this is because the teachers unions have obviously overplayed their hand over the past year and a half by showing families their true colors and still they're avoiding, committing to keeping schools open this fall. If you look at the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, they just keep stepping in it over and over again. And it's actually kind of glorious that the biggest advocates for school choice are unintentional this past year. It happens to be the teachers unions actively destroying their own empire.

If you look at the latest RealClearOpinion research polling on this, we've found a 10 percentage point surge in support for school choice or what I call funding students as opposed to systems since [from] April 2020 with now 74% of the general public supporting school choice in June 2021. And depending on who you ask, 17 or 18 states this past year have expanded programs to fund students as opposed to systems this year.

Bluey: For more than a year now, COVID has really helped expose a number of things related to our schools for parents who've had the opportunity to observe their kids learning at home in a different environment. What has that really meant across the country in terms of parents really recognizing what is going on at public schools and maybe giving them an opportunity to evaluate whether that's really where they want their kids learning?

DeAngelis: COVID didn't break the public school system. In a lot of ways, it was already broken. And the past year and a half simply has shined a spotlight on the main problem with K-12 education in America, which happens to be a massive, long-existing power and balance between the public school teachers union monopoly and individual families.

Just think about it. It's one thing for an educational institution to receive children's education dollars, regardless of how well they do. And despite failing to meet children's academic standards each year. But it's another conversation altogether for those same institutions to receive children's education dollars, regardless of whether they even open their doors for business.

I think families have started to finally figure out that there isn't any good reason to fund closed institutions when you can fund the students directly instead. Other families that figured out they didn't really like what was going on in the classroom when they got to listen in during remote learning or remote instruction over the past year.

Families are fighting back against things like critical race theory or other curricular issues in the classroom that they don't see align with their values. And we're still seeing other types of fights right now when it comes to one-size-fits-all problems with masking rules in schools.

For example, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed for all families in the state to be able to choose in the public school system, whether to send their kids to school with masks or not. The teachers unions didn't like that, so the board of education in Florida responded unanimously by unanimously approving, allowing all families to take their children's education dollars to a private school, if they disagree with the masking decision in their public schools.

This is just another way that the teachers unions across the nation right now are really stepping in it and exposing the one-size-fits-all problem that is, the public school system. All these problems can be fixed by allowing families to vote with their feet, whether it comes to curricular battles, common core, masking, or just poor academic outcomes in a particular institution.

Bluey: And you said earlier, based on some of the recent polling that's out that this is happening across the board, it's not just a Republican or even an independent voter. Even Democrats are shifting on this issue. Can you delve a little bit deeper into some of those polling results? Can you paint a picture of what is going on in the public's mind?

DeAngelis: The biggest jumps in support were among families who you would have thought to be less likely to support allowing families to vote with their feet beforehand. The biggest jumps in support were among Democrats and families who had their kids in the public school system.

I think a lot of people started to wake up and realize that even if they like their public school, they don't want to feel powerless ever again, going forward, even if they do want to choose the traditional system going forward, they might want an exit option to, again, remedy that power imbalance that exists in the current system or refund the building regardless of how well they do or the satisfaction of the family, or even whether they even opened their doors for business. These families might just want to have more empowerment going forward, to have a better say about what happens with their kids' educations, even if they do continue with sending their kids to the public schools.

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. It's if you look at the polling on this, the majority of constituents tend to support funding students directly when it comes to K-12 education, whether you're an independent or a Republican or a Democrat, whether you send your kids already to private school or whether your kids are in the public school system, this is a nonpartisan issue.

School choice is an equalizer. Advantaged families are already more likely to already have school choice. They can afford to send their kids to a private school by paying out of pocket for tuition and fees. They can already afford to, or at least be more likely to afford to cover the cost of based with adequate home-based education and more advantaged families are already more likely to be able to afford to live in a neighborhood that just happens to be residentially assigned to the better public schools.

Funding students directly allows more families to have educational opportunities and leads to more equity in society. This is really a win-win situation when it comes to everybody except for the bosses of the teachers unions.

Bluey: I know from experience, my own personal experience, as a father of two public school kids, we did have the advantage to move to a neighborhood with a great public school and not everybody does. I certainly support what you're saying. What advice do you have for parents as they may come to you, or look at your research as they're trying to make a decision, what factors should go into their minds, as they're trying to decide, what is the best educational option for their kids?

DeAngelis: There's a lot of things that can go into your decision about what type of school is best for you. Cost is obviously an issue to think about, which is one of the reasons why we should fund students directly.

We already spend about $16,000 per child per year nationwide in the public school system. That funding should go to the parents and they should be able to decide if they want to take that money to the public school or another private school. But other things that you can think about are the academic standards in the school. Maybe whether your school is focusing on political issues in the classroom, maybe you don't want as much of that happening on a day-to-day basis, the safety and the environment of the school.

There's a lot of things that can go into your decision about the educational environment for your kid. But I think what we forget a lot of the times is a lot of people will choose a particular system just because it's “free” and we spend the money on the building instead of the kid.

If we were to reallocate that funding from the institution to the student, that would make the decision-making process a lot easier for families, and they'd be able to have more realistic options, particularly for the lower income families that might not be able to pay for private school out of pocket.

Bluey: I like the way that you talk about this issue and really are focusing on the money going to the child as opposed to a building. Yet, as we know, over the course of the past year in response to COVID, the government has doled out millions, if not billions of dollars to support schools for a variety of reasons. Do we know how this money is being spent?

DeAngelis: Not really. And if you look at the American Rescue Plan, which has $123 billion going to K-12 education, Sen. Roy Blunt from Missouri, a Republican, introduced an amendment to the American Rescue Plan to make the funding actually contingent upon reopening the schools for in-person instruction, which was supposed to be the purpose of that funding. It actually failed on a 50-50 partisan basis with all Democrats voting in opposition of that amendment. So the funding doesn't even really have to be used to reopen schools for in-person instruction.

If you even look at the initial $13 billion that was allocated through the CARES Act, the majority of that funding in the majority of states has not been spent. So the public school systems have so much money, they don't even know what to do with it at this point. And I believe the total amount was around $190 billion in federal bailouts since March 2020. And they're calling for more funding. The reality is it's never going to be enough when you can always just go to a third-party, the taxpayer that didn't actually agree to doling out these additional dollars.

And look, I think on a per pupil basis, it's about $2,000 or $3,000 extra per child in the traditional public school system. But what I like to focus on is this money shouldn't have gone to the buildings, it should go to the students, particularly when you think about how we already fund individuals directly, when it comes to so many other taxpayer-funded initiatives, such as Pell grants for higher education, or the GI bill for veterans for higher education or pre-K programs at the state level and at the federal level, the funding goes to the student and the family can choose where to send that funding, whether it's a public or private religious or non-religious institution. We do the same thing with Pell grants, where the funding goes to the family, and then they can choose to take the money to Walmart if they want, but they don't have to spend it at a residentially assigned government-run grocery store. We should apply the same logic to K-12 education and fund people as opposed to buildings.

Bluey: We've seen so many examples of how many people's lives have been changed as a result of school choice. So to think about it that way, how you just explained it, makes a lot of sense. The research backs this up, and you are somebody who's taken a close look. We hear about a lot of these anecdotes. We featured many of the stories on The Daily Signal or highlighted them here at The Heritage Foundation. But what does the research tell us about school choice when it comes to academic achievement, but also life outcomes, years down the road?

DeAngelis: I will say the best evidence we have in favor of funding students directly, is the satisfaction levels of the families and the overwhelming number of families that choose alternatives when they're given the option.

If you look at the surveys from Ed Choice and American Federation of Children and other outlets that have done these kinds of surveys, they've asked families, where do you send your kids now? And if you had an option, where would you send your kids if the funding followed the child. And every time that this type of survey is done, it seems to be about half of the kids, families with kids in public schools would actually that if they had exit options. So that tells you that they would prefer to have alternatives, and they're currently stuck in a system that's not working for them.

If you look at the charter school waitlist numbers across the country. Hundreds of thousands of names of students on waitlist begging to get a chance to go to an alternative such as a charter school.

So the expressed decision of families is the best evidence we have, but to get to answer your question more directly, which is I think, what you were looking for is that the random, the majority of the random assignment studies on the topic, comparing the winners of the lottery to use a voucher program to the students who lose the lottery and did not have the opportunity to go to a private school, find statistically significant positive effects of winning that lottery on either math or reading test scores for some or all students. But when you start to look at the non-test score outcomes, things like expressed reports of satisfaction or reports of safety or criminal activity reductions, these studies tend to be much more positive. And I think that's because, families care a lot more than just about their children's educational environments than just what can be captured by a standardized test score.

For example, the latest D.C. voucher program experiment, which was published in 2019, a federal evaluation, they found that winning a lottery to attend a private school in D.C. didn't have any statistically significant effects on math or reading test scores, but they had huge positive effects on reports of safety and satisfaction and positive effects on showing up to school each day, attendance at a third of the cost too. The public schools in D.C. spend on average about $31,000 per job per year, which is a ton of money. The voucher kids only get about $10,000 per year. So the test score results are about the same, satisfaction and safety is through the roof. All at a third of the cost. I'd say that as a huge win, but I think the better evidence of whether something is successful or not is, are the families using the program when given the option? And overwhelmingly they do.

There's so many different reasons why families feel that their children would benefit from having education alternatives. And look, it's not going to always be captured by a standardized test score.

Bluey: So many factors obviously go into that. And one of the things that you said at the top of the interview was the number of states that have taken action in the past year on this topic. Walk us through some of the highlights, where some of the best activity is taking place if a parent out there is looking for the opportunities? Where should they look? And where does work still need to be done?

DeAngelis: The biggest types of reforms that were done this year are something called education savings accounts. So for the listeners who probably understand what a voucher program is, where the funding that would have went to the traditional public school that your child is residentially assigned to, can follow that child to a private school, to pay for tuition and fees, if the traditional school doesn't work for them, for whatever reason.

The education savings account program is the same kind of idea, but the funding that would have went to the traditional school, follows the child into something called an education savings account, and then the family can take that funding to pay for private school tuition and fees like the voucher idea, but they can also use it to pay for other approved education expenditures, such as tutoring, textbooks and instructional materials, homeschool types of options, such as pandemic pods or micro-schools. It really is the purest form of funding students as opposed to systems and gives families the most flexibility and ability to customize their children's educational environments.

The number of states that have education savings account programs doubled this year from five to 10 states. And some of the biggest wins were in places like West Virginia, which went from zero to 100 when it comes to school choice. They didn't have any charter schools on the ground last year, and they didn't have any private school choice initiatives such as education savings accounts last year. But this year they passed the most expansive education savings account program in the nation. I believe about 93% of families with school-aged children will be eligible for the program in the first year. And that cap should blow off to being universally accessible to all families in about four years. So that's a huge win in West Virginia.

We also saw similar programs and expansions in New Hampshire, which will also have an education savings account program, which will be the second most expansive in the nation. And then Kentucky will have the third most expansive education savings account program in the nation. But as you said, 17 or 18 states have passed bills this year alone to enact new programs or expand existing programs to fund students directly. So this is what we're calling the year of school choice.

Bluey: Wow, a lot of activity there, Corey. Thank you so much for walking us through it. What are some of the impediments in the way, where some of the other states that have introduced legislation just can't get it across the finish line who's standing in the way of making that happen?

DeAngelis: Typically, as I've said before, this should not be a partisan issue, when you look at the arguments for school choice, particularly when you look at the reality that this leads to benefits for essentially everybody, including the teachers in the system, which see higher salaries as a result of school choice competition, because their employers, which are currently monopolies, tend to allocate more resources, more efficiently into the classroom in response to school choice competition. This is a win for families, this is a win in terms of social justice and in terms of equity by allowing more to have educational alternatives.

And when you look at the polling on this, the majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents support it, but in the state houses, Democrats just tend to be a lot less likely to vote for funding students directly when it comes to K-12 education, which is really interesting to me, because typically the people who vote against K-12 funding going directly to students support it when it comes to Pell grants for higher education and also support it when it comes to pre-K programs, such as the federal Head Start program, where the funding follows the student to wherever the family decides is the best fit for their child.

The same thing with food stamps and Medicaid dollars, which can be used at Catholic private hospitals, the same people who support all these other measures, that fund individuals, as opposed to buildings, they get all up in arms only when it comes to the in-between years of K-12 education.

The only way to square that apparent logical and consistency is to realize that the power dynamics differ, that choice is the norm with higher education and pre-K and choices the norm with just about any other industry in the United States, but choice threatens and entrenched special interests that would otherwise profit from getting your children's education dollars, regardless of how well they do and what we've seen over the past year, regardless of whether they even opened their doors for business. So that entrenched special interests fights really hard against any change to the status quo, because they have a pretty sweet deal right now where they have a monopoly on your children's public education dollars.

Bluey: As you said at the beginning, teachers unions in some ways are the greatest advocates in the past year for school choice. So maybe we're starting to see the public turn against this entrenched establishment and maybe see things slightly differently.

DeAngelis: I mean, it's, it's kind of a weird situation to be in right now as a school choice advocate. The teachers unions’ keeping schools closed for so long and then introducing tons of mandates on other people's children is disheartening to see, especially when you see all of the evidence of learning loss and mental health issues that have arisen over the past year. But as a school choice advocate, they're really overplaying their hand and inadvertently doing more to advance school choice than anyone could have ever imagined.

The more than more that they continue to abuse the rights of families by forcing their ridiculous policies on all students, the more they expose the problems with their one-size-fits-all system. And the more that they fuel parents' desires to exercise choice and to push for policies that truly empower and free their children from the clutches of the teachers unions. So part of me says to continue what you're doing, president of the teachers union drink, Randi Weingarten, because you're really helping in the long run, expose the problems with the system.

Bluey: In 2019, you helped expose Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Despite being a vocal opponent to school choice, she sent her own child to a private school. She's hardly the only politician to do this. How rampant is this hypocrisy in legislatures and other places where you have prominent individuals who speak out against school choice, and yet in their own personal lives, decide that they're going to embrace it?

DeAngelis: It's just all over the place. I mean, almost all of the time when I see a politician vote against school choice, they almost always send their kids to private school or at least attended private school themselves, which is just the ultimate form of hypocrisy, especially when they try to say that that they want to help reduce inequities in society while they're not really helping when they shut the door behind them after exercising school choice for them or their own kids and they're not extending that same kind of opportunity to other families.

I have a map at the Educational Freedom Institute, which tracks some of these school choice hypocrites. You can hover over your state and see, for example, in Massachusetts, you have Elizabeth Warren who actually lied on video about it as well.

I don't think she knew that I had exposed the fact that she sent her son Alex to private school when she was living in Austin, Texas, and in Pennsylvania, because just a couple of weeks after I uncovered that using ancestry.com a parent, a voter in Atlanta actually came up to talk to her on video after one of her rallies and just said something along the lines that, “I heard you sent your kid to private school at one point, I just want the same kind of opportunities you had for your kid.”

Elizabeth Warren quickly, but quietly responded by saying, “No. I sent my kids to public schools,” which was clearly a lie and that really backfired on her. But I don't blame Elizabeth Warren for sending Alex Warren to private schools for some of his education, but she shouldn't fight against other families having that same kind of opportunity, especially when we're already spending the money, and this would just allow the funding to follow the child to wherever works best for their kids. That could be a public school, it could be a private school.

Some of the hypocrites try to defend themselves by saying, “I spent my money out of my pocket paying for the private school, tuition and fees.” But really that's pretty much like saying that only advantaged families should be able to have that opportunity and the disadvantaged communities shouldn't be able to exercise that same kind of option as well. Then they also try to argue that this is not defunding the public schools, because they pay it out of pocket.

The reality is the financial effect on the traditional public school is the same, regardless of whether you're using a voucher program or whether you're paying out of pocket for private school tuition and fees, because public schools are funded based on enrollment counts.

So when Elizabeth Warren pulled her kid from a public school and sent them to a private school, even though she was paying out of pocket, she defunded the public schools by reducing the number of kids in the public school system. They still lose funding regardless of how that choice is exercised.

Bluey: One final question for you. Why should parents want the freedom to be able to take that money with them, with their child to make this decision?

DeAngelis: There's a lot of different reasons why they might want that freedom. One, you don't really have to use the option to have the freedom to have that option.

I mean, there's just so many reasons why the traditional school might not work for you or your family, or maybe it works for one kid, but no doesn't work so well for another kid. Maybe the private school is a better fit for one of the people in your family.

We've seen that with many examples as well, where the public school might be the best fit for one kid, but the private school might be another fit. So yeah, it could have to do with the curriculum in the school. It could have to do with the learning style of your child. You could have a child with a special need that it's not working out really well with the programs in the traditional school setting.

There might be a bullying issue in the public school. In Florida, for example, they even have something called the Hope Scholarship for kids, regardless of income level of their families. They qualify for a Hope Scholarship, if they feel bullied in the traditional school setting.

It could have to do with academics. It could have to do with the school culture. There could just be so many reasons why you might want an alternative option. It could be that you're scared to send your kid to an institution that is not masking for example. So and it could be that you don't want to send your kid to an institution that is requiring them to wear a mask.

There's just so many ways that this can go and the reason for that is because one-size-fits-all institutions are not going to work. They'll never work for large populations of families that have diverse views and differing viewpoints about what should be included in the educational setting.

All these fights that we're seeing right now about curriculum and masking mandates in the schools. We saw this with fights with things like common core before, it's all just a symptom of the larger problem, which is the one-size-fits-all government school system.

Bluey: Corey, where can people find your work? What advice do you have for them, if they want to stay engaged and learn more about the research that you're doing?

DeAngelis: They can follow me on Twitter. It's my last name then my first name, it's @DeAngelisCorey, but also if you want to help join the fight towards funding students, as opposed to systems, you can go to fundstudentsnotsystems.org.

Bluey: Corey, thanks for your work on this issue. It's certainly a passion of yours and ours. We'll continue to highlight those success stories on The Daily Signal and appreciate you spending the time with us today.

DeAngelis: Thank you so much.

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