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Parents want educational opportunities for all

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Students hurry toward their school building for classes after disembarking a school bus.

School vouchers. Education savings accounts (ESAs). Backpack funding. Student-based funding. Weighted student funding. “Fund students, not systems.” Education choice.

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And no matter what you call it, Americans like it.

As part of its 10th annual Schooling in America Survey, EdChoice recently polled a nationally representative sample of Americans on their thoughts about a school funding system that would collect both state and local funds at the state level and then distribute those funds to families based on student need to use at the educational setting of their choosing. The setting could be a district school, public charter school, private religious or nonreligious school, homeschool or other approved education provider.

Seventy-one percent of parents and 63 percent of the general population indicated that they favor such a funding mechanism.

This overwhelming support for states to equip parents with the ability to find the best array of educational services for their children cuts across all subgroups, including party lines.

Parents are particularly supportive of this arrangement. Parents with children who are enrolled in private schools and public charter schools support it at a rate of 87 percent and 76 percent, respectively, but it is also strong among parents with kids in traditional public schools (67 percent) and homeschools (69 percent).

One might expect most rural parents oppose choice because of worries about potential harm to their local public schools or due to a lack of alternative options around them. Turns out the opposite is true.

While support for a unified system of funding is considerably high among urban and suburban parents (76 percent and 72 percent, respectively), it is also quite high among rural parents, where 62 percent support publicly funding universal choice in education.

Maybe most surprising, given prevailing political rhetoric, 77 percent of parents who identify as Democrat support a unified system of funding compared to 70 percent of parents who identify as Republican and 66 percent as Independent.

Perhaps most Americans support a unified system of funding and tend to favor ESAs over other more limited forms of choice because they care more about educating children than promoting a particular sector of schooling.

Perhaps Americans support funding all children regardless of their background, where they live or what kind of education their parents want for them because it reflects certain values that a large majority of Americans hold for K-12 education.

Either way, a significant majority of Americans support a choice-rich education funding system.

But what does this look like in practice?

Recently, Arizona expanded its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to include all K-12 students residing in the state. Every child, regardless of background or address, can choose to receive a publicly funded education account worth about $7,000 per year. Families can use those funds to enroll their children in a private school or access a variety of approved educational services. Students who have special needs would receive a higher amount. Programs like Arizona’s reflect important American values and American preferences better than the current system of public schools.

Americans care a lot about equality of opportunity. They are right to.

Our current K-12 education system does not advance it because it tightly links where children live to where they go to school. Families of means can buy their way into better public schools when they purchase a home in the geographic catchment area for a high-quality school. Families without such privileges are stuck with whatever their local school provides, good, bad, or indifferent. Why trap students in a single system of schools when their funding could go to a panoply of different educational providers who are competing and innovating in a quest to better serve students?

Many Americans also care that taxpayer dollars are used well.

Costs in the traditional schooling system have risen inexorably for decades. This shouldn’t surprise us, as there are no pressures on schools to rein in costs. A universal ESA system would incentivize parents to look at cost when choosing educational options because finding lower cost options would leave more money in their accounts to spend on other providers. This would finally put pressure on the system to think about efficiency as well as effectiveness.

Parents are more likely to seek the highest value in education services they can purchase for their children, which will benefit both families and the state alike. Under the current public school monopoly, on the other hand, bureaucrats spend other people’s money on someone else’s children and care less for value.

Arizona has created an educational funding system that Americans across the country and across the political spectrum are telling us they want. More states should follow.

Martin F. Lueken is the director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to understanding and pursuing a K–12 education system that empowers every family to choose the schooling environment that fits their children’s needs best.

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