Can Virginia Have School Choice Now?

My new daughter-in-law visited with us for several days this Christmas. Obviously I’m biased, but she is wonderful and my son is lucky to have such a lovely and talented bride. As our family is wont to do, conversation eventually turned to politics, and being that she is a newly minted teacher, one of the most interesting threads was education. Like most teachers she is dedicated to her students and passionate about serving her community. Unfortunately, I discovered, she is also primed for a professional life of sacrifice within a sub-optimum system characterized by head-scratching rules, poor administration and negative career incentives that make being a teacher, no matter how dedicated one might be, a difficult and trying profession. Thankfully we were able to end our discussion on an optimistic note, as it appears that change is finally on the horizon. For her sake, and the sake of future generations, I hope this is true.

Top on the discussion list were my stories about how liberal education establishment types are losing their collective mind over Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. I warned my daughter-in-law that we are sure to hear much wailing when confirmation hearings commence, including red herrings about DeVos not being an educator, and that she has never “been in the classroom” (as if the Secretary of Education is going to be teaching High School in her spare time or something). More to the point, I explained, detractors will say that she “doesn’t support the public education system.” This is education-establishment shorthand for DeVos’ support for school vouchers to enable parents to send their children to the schools that they want to attend, instead of the schools that the government says they must attend. This horror, supporting vouchers or “school choice,” is a sin to the education establishment, and therefore we, and teachers around the country, should expect much hyperventilating about her appointment. To the establishment, “school choice” is just plain bad. (Oh, and yes, she is a Christian too, so get ready for that.)

With the DeVos appointment, however, and Virginia’s 2017 Governor’s race, Virginians should not be worried, they should be optimistic. Virginia is way behind in education innovation, with only 9 publically funded charter schools serving just 883 students. (In contrast our neighbor North Carolina has 151 charter schools serving 70,000 students and Maryland has 78 such schools, providing choice to 37,000 students.) We only have one “school choice” program, the Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits Program which began in 2013. This limited program offers tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to qualified Scholarship Foundations providing private school scholarships to low-income students. It’s a good program, but it is not exactly radical change. Attempts to pass innovative “Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)” have run into Governor McAuliffe’s veto, and even limited efforts to provide such benefits to children with special needs have met that roadblock.

Meanwhile the United States public education system is in serious trouble. Like any organization run by the government it suffers from bureaucratic inefficiencies, ever-rising costs and ever-decreasing quality, and the sclerosis associated with an over-emphasis on rules, regulations and one-size-fits-all, from-the-top policymaking (exacerbated by political correctness). Teachers remain excellent, in most cases, and our rich society makes up for some of these problems by providing financial support at a level far above most other nations (only Austria, Luxemburg, Norway and Switzerland spend more). Time, however, is not on the side of a system that will not innovate, that promotes and compensates by seniority instead of merit, plows massive and increasing dollars into outdated and unsustainable retirement programs, or loads up on administrative costs as demanded by the government-agency culture. Educators are good people; they become educators because they want to do right by society and because they love children. Unfortunately they are forced to work within a system that will destroy their efforts incrementally over time, because that is what big, bureaucratic systems do. School choice may not be a panacea, but it injects competition into this system and shakes up the status quo. Parents want it, children need it, and it is time that we get some in Virginia.

Protecting the status quo has clearly never been a part of the Trump plan. And I am for one am glad he is bringing on reformers who don’t carry water for the current power base. Betsy DeVos talks the talk and walks the walk. “What we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the ZIP code of their family’s home,” she said. “We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible.” She has spent decades and given millions to school choice supporting efforts, and will be a vocal supporter of the school choice revolution.

Striking a similar tone, leading contender, and my clear choice, for Governor Ed Gillespie writes on his campaign website that “some children lack the opportunities they deserve and are forced into failing schools just because of their zip code.” That sounds a lot like a call for school choice to me, and on the trail Ed has been supportive of innovation in education and is a vocal advocate for change. With a Republican Governor, Republican Legislature and support from the Feds, 2017 could be the year that innovation trumps the establishment in Virginia, and real school choice becomes a reality.

Mrs. DeVos sums it up quite well, “traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.” Let’s hope that is true for Virginians too.

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