School choice is a hot-button issue in Alabama and nationwide. But what is school choice? More importantly, what is it not, and what should or could it be?
I personally like the term "educational freedom" better than school choice, partially because of the negative connotations brought on by the pro-abortion lobby's (mis)use of the term "choice" and partly because the truth is many parents already utilize a certain level of choice regarding the education of their K-12 children, though not all can.
The differences between what is happening now in education and what school choice proponents advocate for are found in both funding and freedom.
There are about 724,000 public school students in K-12 across Alabama; about 1,200 of those students are enrolled in public charter schools. Approximately 4,000 students are enrolled in schools using scholarships made available through the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), but those students are in a mix of both public and private schools. AAA tax credits are awarded to students whose families earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level, with priority given to students in failing school districts.
Homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S. Nationwide. There were about 2.3 million homeschool students in 2016, 2.5 million in 2019 and 2.65 million in 2020. COVID served as a homeschooling catalyst; only about 5% of Alabama families homeschooled at the onset of COVID. Approximately 11% of U.S. households with school-age children were homeschooling in October 2020. During that same timeframe, 12% of Alabama families were homeschooling (about 200,000 students). In addition, there are approximately 85,000 private school students in the state of Alabama. Interestingly, about 80% of private schools in our state are religiously affiliated. So, in rough numbers, about 285,000 K-12 students and their families have already opted out of the state school system.
The latest iteration of a school choice bill was batted around in the Alabama Legislature last year, and it was notable that there was absolutely no discussion of those 285,000 students benevolently propping up the failed state school system with their parents' taxpayer funding. There was also no discussion whatsoever about why those parents opting out (or others unable to do so currently) might choose a different type of education than public education. Alabama is habitually in the bottom five in the nation in both math and reading, yet we're third in the country in per-pupil spending. Funding doesn't seem to be the crux of the problem, despite the steady edu-crat and union drumbeat to the contrary. However, during a public discussion on the bill, Alabama State Superintendent of Schools Eric Mackey asserted that education dollars (ahem, taxpayer dollars) are state property and could only be properly administered by the state department of education. Further, school board administrators, bureaucrats and professional education lobbyists (mostly paid for with our tax dollars) repeatedly questioned the ability of parents and private schools to even teach children adequately without the benefit of their benevolent bureaucratic oversight. Pretty gutsy for the perpetually failing system administrators to assume and assert that they're better and smarter than parents who opted out of their system due to their failures, but I digress.
Public union lobbyists and public employees effectively submarined last year's bill that would allow for parental control over their children's education. In doing so, they flatly and loudly rejected the abilities of parents to educate their own children or even to make viable decisions on their behalf. Their assertions made it clear they disdained the role of parents in education, and since then, they have repeatedly shown they don't value parental input. Alabama's education apparatus fundamentally misunderstands who is responsible for educating children. Newsflash: it's not overpaid bureaucrats or AEA lobbyists sliding envelopes of PAC cash across white tablecloths or even well-meaning teachers. It's parents.
The system has failed, and it's clear there needs to be an educational paradigm shift – a shift from fully funded government schools that spend more money on bricks and mortar than they do on math and reading. It's time to shift away from schools that spend more time on equity and indoctrination than they do exponents and integers. Alabama public schools have failed to educate our students adequately, and it's time to give every single Alabama parent the ability to opt-out.
What should educational freedom look like in Alabama? It should look a lot like Arizona. Arizona recently passed legislation that gives every single K-12 student the ability to use a portion of their parents' taxes to choose which school or homeschool supplies/curriculum they want their tuition to go towards. Arizona will have pure educational freedom, and its structure should be a nationwide model.
Educational freedom shouldn't look like taxpayer funding being tightly managed by the bureaucratic morass in Montgomery.
Educational freedom shouldn't hinder or bind homeschooling families or private schools with any additional governmental authority or supervision.
Educational freedom shouldn't retain or expand the power of those people perpetuating the problems; that includes the public sector unions that pull the political strings.
Educational freedom shouldn't look like government employees choosing which kids get to be the winners and which kids have to be the losers.
Educational freedom shouldn't be limited to the small number of students the AAA program or charter programs have been able to reach.
Educational freedom should empower all Alabama parents to be the educational decision-makers for their children.
Educational freedom should reject governmental admissions standards and testing requirements.
Educational freedom should ignore fiscal turf wars and put students rather than employees first.
Educational freedom should return the responsibility of education to the parents of children.
Enough with the turf wars, Alabama. Let's demand our government education system stop serving as a glorified public employment agency with little to no accountability and little to no success. Let's start putting our focus on what education is actually supposed to be all about: educating kids.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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