It used to be that most everyone went to public schools and the only political debate about this was how much more to give the schools next year. That started to change in the 1990s and gained momentum into this century. Last year, 19 states passed reforms to allow more charter schools, to fund students rather than institutions, and to help give parents more options on how they can educate their children.
Corey DeAngelis, the National Director of Research for the American Federation for Children — and the loudest voice on school choice — joins the Overton Window podcast this week to discuss how and why things changed so quickly.
“I think in the previous legislative session it was only one state had a new private school choice program,” he says. He cites schools’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest driver behind the latest wave of school choice legislation. “COVID didn't break the government school system. In a lot of ways, it was already broken and the past two years now simply shine to spotlight on the main problem with K-12 education all across the country,” he says.
People got a look at how private schools operated compared to public schools when faced with the same challenge. “I think the main difference there was one of incentives — that one of those sectors received children's education dollars regardless of whether they even opened their doors for business,” DeAngelis notes.
“It is mostly the teachers unions’ fault for overplaying their hand, and showing their true colors during COVID, at the worst time possible trying to protect it themselves as opposed to meeting the needs of families,” he says.
Nor is it just public school unions who angered parents throughout the pandemic. “The national school board association sent a letter to the Biden administration implying that some parents should be investigated as ‘domestic terrorists’ for pushing back at school board meetings and voicing their concerns about curriculum that is not aligned with their values,” DeAngelis says.
There are now 30 states where legislators have introduced bills to fund students as opposed to systems. That includes his recommended policy, education savings accounts, where lawmakers fund accounts for each student that can be used as their parents decide. “It’s the new gold standard of school choice,” he says.
West Virginia saw the biggest change in 2021. The state had very little school choice before passing its education savings account program, known as Hope Scholarships. “It turns out that about 94% of the school age population is eligible for this program in the state of West Virginia in year one and it'll expand to a hundred percent in a few years,” DeAngelis says.
“Children should get the same amount of taxpayer funded education dollars regardless of the type of public school that works for them, whether that's a traditional or a charter public school,” he says. “And to be to be frank, it shouldn't matter whether they want to take that money to a private school, they should get the same amount of money. The money is meant for educating the children, not for propping up and protecting a particular institution, whether it's public or private — the money belongs to the kids, not the buildings.”
DeAngelis helps get reforms approved by lawmakers by drawing attention to efforts and responding to complaints.
“Whenever a bill is introduced or passed I will report on it on social media. I have a pretty big microphone on Twitter, especially, and get people excited about what's happening,” he says. (I think he underplays his work — the man has over 90,000 followers on Twitter right now and they do a lot to promote his work.)
The medium has its virtues. “It's great in that it forces you to think and communicate in sound bites. And whether you like it or not, for the majority of the population, if you can't convince them in a few sound bites you're toast,” DeAngelis said, “I think Twitter has also trained to me to be a more effective communicator.”
DeAngelis has many familiar opponents. School interest groups like superintendent associations, teachers unions, and school board associations see any attempt to fund students as a threat. They also deploy the same arguments in each state, and he’s gotten used to responding to them. “Sometimes I'll just respond with a rhetorical question, ‘Why would giving families a choice defund public schools?’ and I usually get blocked for that question because there’s no good answer from the other side,” he says.
This online engagement is important work because it bolsters legislative support. As bills make their way through the legislative process, lawmakers hear a lot from interests. Their support can waver if they’re not confident that their side has the right answers, and that’s one thing that DeAngelis provides.
It also helps to let his followers know how the legislative fights are going. “Just reporting how the votes go holds people accountable. You can't say you support school choice and then vote against an education savings account bill,” he says.
Perhaps one of the surprising things is how much pushback against school choice comes from lawmakers who choose to send their own children to private schools. In fact, one of the reasons why he has so many Twitter followers is because of the disconnect lawmakers have between what they say and what they do.
He found that then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, an opponent of funding students rather than institutions, had said that she did not send her children to private schools when she had, in fact, sent her children to private schools. “I don't blame Elizabeth Warren for sending her kid to private school. I don't blame any politician for seeking the best educational options for their kids,” DeAngelis says, “But you shouldn't turn around and fight against less advantaged families having the same kinds of opportunities.”
DeAngelis is optimistic about the future for funding students and not institutions. He points to consistent polls, major success in West Virginia, and the gubernatorial race in Virginia that centered around school choice, but most importantly the rise of parents who want better options. “The teachers unions have finally overplayed their hand and awakened the sleeping giant: These parents who want more of a say in their kids’ education, and politicians would be wise to listen to them,” DeAngelis says.
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