Educational Freedom Update

Published June 14, 2023

As I wrote just two months ago, 2023 has seen Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and Florida establish universal school choice programs, giving all parents in those states control over the spending of their state’s education monies. According to the EdChoice dashboard, as of April 23, there were 12 states with education savings accounts (ESAs), 26 voucher programs in 15 states, and 25 tax-credit scholarship programs in 21 states.

But now, that is old news.

On April 26, Indiana expanded its voucher program so nearly all students will be eligible. The state raised the income cap to 400% of the free- and reduced-price lunch income level, which is now about $220,000 for a family of four. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the bill also removes the other criteria for eligibility so that any family under the income limit can apply. “Tens of thousands of additional students could qualify, and a legislative analysis projects that some 95,000 students might use the program in 2025, up from about 53,000 in 2023.

The Indiana program is almost universal. Betsy Wiley of the Institute for Quality Education told the Indiana Capital Chronicle, “Early estimates suggest only 3.5% of families with school-age children in Indiana would not be eligible for the program under the new income limit.”

On May 25, Oklahoma enacted a universal choice law. Gov. Kevin Stitt asserts, “School choice shouldn’t be just for the rich or those who can afford it. Now it’s available for every single family in the state of Oklahoma.” At least $5,000 will go to parents who want to send their child to a private school or home school.

On May 30, Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen signed into law Nebraska’s first-ever school choice bill, a tax credit program. As the American Federation of Children details, “Students from lower-income families, students with special needs, students who experience bullying, students from military families, students in foster care, and students who are denied option enrollment into a non-zone public school are eligible for scholarships.”

Additionally, Texas, Ohio, and several other states are in the process of establishing new private choice programs for parents.

Needless to say, the education monopolists are quite furious over the choice wave and are not going quietly into the night. In Nebraska, the language for a ballot referendum repealing the tax credit law was filed with the Nebraska Secretary of State. The effort, led by a group called “Support Our Schools” and backed by the Nebraska State Educational Association, seeks to place the issue before voters on the ballot in 2024.

“Our goal is to give Nebraskans the opportunity to vote to repeal this harmful bill,” said Jenni Benson, president of the NSEA.

One of the establishmentarians’ ongoing mantras about tax credits programs is that they are nothing more than a tax break for the wealthy.

This is a lie, however. The way it works is that taxpayers get a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO). So, where tax credits are in play, if a taxpayer owes $10,000 in taxes, he can divert half of it to an SGO, the other half going to the government. The taxpayer is still out $10,000 either way, so there is no tax break.

In Arizona, which established universal choice last year, Democrats, including the governor and their teacher union allies, are demanding a rollback in the state’s budget. “We won’t accept any budget that doesn’t include a significant cap or rollback of ESA vouchers which are bankrupting our schools & our state,”Save our Schools Arizona tweeted, “It’s time to DEMAND BETTER for AZ public school students & educators.”

Gov. Katie Hobbs grouses that ESAs will cost Arizona at least $1.5 billion over the next decade. But as Matt Beienburg, Goldwater Institute’s Director of Education Policy, explains, “The $15 billion annual cost of our public schools will total more than $150 billion over that same time horizon. To argue that taxpayers can afford the latter, but somehow not the former, defies basic common sense.”

Hence, the “bankrupting” accusation is overwrought.

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper actually declared a “state of emergency in education” after the Republican-controlled legislature voted to make it easier for families to obtain school vouchers. In his May 22 address, the Democrat – incredibly – accused Republicans of trying to “starve public education” and of dropping “an atomic bomb on public education.”

Maybe just a wee bit of hyperbole?

On the charter school front, things are also happening. The country’s first religious charter school was approved in Oklahoma in early June. The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board has cleared the way for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School to open in the fall of 2024, with plans to weave religious curriculum into online classes offered from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Not surprisingly, the response to it has been frenzied.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond claims it is unconstitutional. “The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the State to potential legal action that could be costly.”

And, of course, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten weighed in. “This decision not only threatens to siphon millions of dollars in public money into private hands, it strikes at the heart of our nation’s very foundations. The framers never intended to require public funding of religious institutions or religious schools.” The union boss added, “The combination of the Constitution’s free exercise clause and the concept of separation of church and state is what ensures religious freedom in the United States. This decision turns that idea on its head.”

But the naysayers have some ‘splainin’ to do. First, “public schools” in the U.S. have traditionally been religious. The public school movement was begun for the purpose of instilling Protestant values in our nation’s youth. Catholics, Jews, and others had to pay extra for schools that reflected their religious ideals. Government schools are still religious, but Protestantism is like sooo 19th Century. The regnant belief system in many of our schools is now leftism or cultural Marxism.

Also, the Supreme Court’s Carson v. Makin decision in 2022 revolved around Maine’s town tuitioning law, which allows parents living in districts that do not own and operate elementary or secondary schools to send their children to public or private schools in other areas of the state, or even outside the state, using funds provided by the child’s home district. SCOTUS ruled that if a state subsidizes private education, it cannot disqualify religious schools.

Until the Carson decision, the school a parent chose could not be a religious one. But as Chief Justice John Roberts explains, “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools – so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”

Additionally, in all private choice states, parents are allowed to use government-issued funds to send their children to religious schools. Why can’t this be applied to charters?

Much of the debate over religious charters revolves around whether charter schools are public or private. In fact, they are really somewhere in between. While they are funded with public dollars, they are run by private organizations.

In any event, the Oklahoma charter school program will most likely wind up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, where its fate will be decided.

School choice is advancing in leaps and bounds, and politicians should take note. Legislators who insist on toeing the monopolist’s party line may not be in power for long.