Tired of schools being political battlegrounds? Support education choice

Typically, “off year” elections—when neither the president nor members of Congress are on the ballot—are quiet affairs where only die-hard voters show up at the polls. Not this year. And education is front and center.

The Virginia governor’s race is the highest-profile example. Northern Virginia has been a hotbed of public school controversy this year. It started with parents calling out districts for inadequate education at some of the top ranked districts in the state. Parents formed groups to call for better remote options and a return to in-person education.

Between remote instruction and freedom of information act requests for curriculum information,  parents have learned more about what their children were being exposed to at school. They weren’t impressed. From race-based teachings to books with graphic depictions of sexual acts to a sexual attack in a girls’ restroom, Northern Virginia parents are at their wits’ end. They are flocking to school board meetings and demanding change.

The controversy has spilled into the governor’s race—and the candidates’ responses have been polar opposites. Democrat Terry McAuliffe said parents shouldn’t be able to tell schools what to teach. Republican Glenn Youngkin disagreed, saying parents “should be in charge of their kids’ education.” Virginia law is on Youngkin’s side: “A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.”

But in the current system, parents who can’t afford private school can only exercise that “fundamental right” by forcing their preferences on other parents in their district.

We’re seeing this same dynamic in school board races throughout the country. Typically one of the most overlooked electoral contests, school board races have generated intense interest this year. Parents are facing off over COVID-19 policies, curriculum wars, and gender controversies.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Parents have been forced to treat school boards as battle zones due to the “winner takes all” nature of our government-run monopoly school system. By assigning children to a school based on where they live, rather than if it’s a good fit for them, the current system practically guarantees there will be battles. And it’s been that way since the beginning. In 1844, there were riots in Philadelphia that stemmed from fights over which version of the Bible was being taught in public schools.

While most didn’t culminate in riots, fights about content were frequent when the government first started pushing children toward what were known as “common” schools in the mid-1800s. As Boston University scholar Charles Glenn asked in his book The Myth of the Common School, “How can the pluralism we claim to value, the liberty that we prize, be reconciled with a ‘state pedagogy’ designed to serve state purposes?”

These things can’t be reconciled. And that’s why we’re seeing these fights about curriculum and school policies at the state and local level. It’s also why so many political races this year are focused on education—and why it’s gotten so ugly in some places. Requiring parents to send their children to schools whose content is antithetical to those parents’ values is a sure recipe for fights.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. Support for education choice programs is strong, especially among parents. In recent polling, a whopping 84 percent of parents supported educational savings accounts (ESAs), which are the most flexible form of education choice and would allow parents to use taxpayer funds for various educational purchases. Other choice programs also enjoyed high support from parents, including vouchers (78 percent support), tax credit scholarships (80 percent), and charter schools (74 percent). And lawmakers are hearing the message. So far this year, 18 states have enacted new education choice programs or expanded existing ones.

Whether it’s Bible riots in the 1840s or fights about masks and curriculum in 2021, conflict and controversy are unavoidable when you try to make education one size fits all. Americans are diverse—now more than ever. It’s time to let funding follow students rather than making students follow the funding. Ensuring families have options beyond their assigned school is the only way to prevent schools from being political battlegrounds.

Colleen Hroncich is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom

Tags Charter schools in the United States School choice School voucher

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