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A school choice revolution is sweeping the nation. Ten states have passed universal education choice initiatives in the last two years. In addition to private school tuition, most of these new programs allow families to use their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to cover certain homeschool expenses.
The loudest and most influential pushback against school choice comes from Democratic politicians in the pocket of the teachers unions, who want to protect their monopoly over education. However, others have voiced the opposite concern that school choice could increase government regulation of private education.
The concern that “with government shekels come government shackles” is understandable, but misplaced. Shackles can be imposed even without subsidies, and states that have education choice policies tend to respect homeschooling autonomy more than those that don’t.
The government can already regulate private education without providing any funding. It has happened historically and still happens today. Oregon went as far as outlawing private education altogether in 1922 at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to shut down Catholic schools. Thankfully, in 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that bigoted law, famously ruling that “the child is not the mere creature of the State.”
Yet funding need not come with burdensome regulations. States without school choice policies — including Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island — are among the worst states when it comes to burdensome regulations for homeschool families according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Meanwhile, states like Iowa, Indiana and Oklahoma respect the autonomy of homeschool families and have universal or nearly universal education choice policies.
States with more school choice generally have more freedom to homeschool. In fact, last year, Ohio lawmakers passed both universal school choice and a reduction in homeschool regulation.
Education choice policies shift the locus of control over education from politicians and bureaucrats to families. When a government-run school fails to meet a child’s individual learning needs or is pushing values that run contrary to her family’s values, choice policies give that family an immediate escape hatch.
Empowering families with education choice also reduces the likelihood of harmful government regulation. As more families benefit from private and home education, the coalition willing to fight for the autonomy of private education will also grow.
The school choice coalition has been careful to support legislation that includes language preserving the autonomy of private education providers. For example, Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) statute states that a school “shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy or curriculum” as a condition of accepting ESA students. Arizona enacted ESAs more than a decade ago and there have been no encroachments on the freedoms of private schools or homeschoolers.
Nearly every state constitution requires the state legislature to subsidize education to grant every child access to schooling. The question is only whether that subsidy will be in the form of government-run schools to which students are assigned, or directly to families who have the freedom to choose where and how their children are educated.
School choice is always voluntary. No school choice policy has ever forced a family or a school to participate. All families and schools can weigh the costs and benefits and make their own decisions.
Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. As economist Thomas Sowell often reminded us, “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.” School choice isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the most viable option we have today. America’s education system would be much better off if every family had access to the learning environments that worked best for their children.
Jason Bedrick is a research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.