A Breakthrough Year for School Choice

As American students prepare for school, millions of families are benefiting from an opportunity that once would have been unimaginable to them — the power to choose their children’s school. Political trends suggest that even more parents will enjoy that same opportunity in the years ahead. That’s a major win for parents.

In 2006, more than 100,000 students will participate in tuition scholarship programs that allow families to choose the right school for their children. Half a million children will benefit from tuition tax breaks to help pay for private school tuition. And more than a million children will attend one of the nation’s 3,700 public charter schools.

Next year, even more children will benefit from school choice. Already during the 2006 legislative session, eight states — Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin — have created or expanded parental choice programs. Next year, nearly 150,000 students in 10 states and the District of Columbia will participate in tuition scholarship programs.

Despite this impressive growth, the students benefiting from school choice make up just a fraction of the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren. Of course, many American families exercise the most basic form of school choice — that is, choosing a school by choosing where to live — and many are satisfied with their child’s public school.

But millions of financially strapped families don’t have that option. These families often have no alternative but to enroll their children in the local public school, whatever its quality. According to the Department of Education, more than 2,000 public schools have fallen short of state benchmarks for five or more years. Students attending these schools aren’t getting a high-quality education.

Change seemed unlikely. Closely aligned with Democrats, powerful special interest groups, such as the nation’s public school teachers unions, until recently dominated the political tug-of-war to control America’s schools. They work hard to defend the status quo at all costs and oppose school choice reforms, warning that even a modicum of parental choice would somehow destroy public education.

Hope may finally be on the horizon for children trapped in failing schools. School choice reforms — such as school vouchers, education tax credit programs, and charter schools — are winning bipartisan political support. Ideas that have long been championed by economists and conservatives are finally being embraced by some Democrats.

A handful of Democrats played important roles in creating the school voucher and education tax credit programs that exist in a dozen states and Washington, D.C. Democratic governors in Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all signed legislation to expand school choice in 2006. And in New Jersey, Maryland, and Missouri, Democratic state lawmakers sponsored school-choice legislation.

And why shouldn’t Democrats support school choice measures? After all, it is an equal opportunity idea — trying to provide all children with the opportunity to receive the high-quality education necessary to achieve the American dream. Many of the existing school choice programs, such as the school voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., are focused on assisting low-income children in heavily Democratic districts. Other school choice programs have been designed for foster children or those with special needs or autism.

The driving force is parents, because school choice works. Slowly, communities are learning that public education is stronger when parents have the ability to choose a quality school for their children. Growing Democratic support is clear evidence that the future is bright for parental choice in education. And that’s good news for American students.