Students need meaningful school choice, not federal theater

School children around this country are suffering amidst social isolation, learning challenges with remote or part-time learning, and the general fear of a global pandemic. Research clearly shows those effects are falling hardest on at-risk, low-income, and special needs students. This also means that children of color are being disproportionately harmed. We all know of some student – no matter how privileged – who is struggling as schools remain shuttered, activities all-but ceased, and social life nonexistent. Students need meaningful choice, not political theater.

Funding should follow students in this country, not simply go to institutions, and not just during an education-derived pandemic. Families who can afford it have school choice today as they move into leafy suburbs or attend non-public options. This choice simply doesn’t exist for the students who need it the most, let alone working-class or middle-income families.

President Trump’s executive order (EO) providing federal dollars to students in schools that are not open for in-person instruction isn’t the answer for both practical and political reasons.

According to the Reason Foundation’s Corey De Angelis,


This action fits with goals of the Trump Administration to increase federal involvement in school choice. It also stems from continued fallout around initial federal COVID relief last spring and the latest round of federal assistance.

For reasons both practical and political, yesterday’s announcement will likely have no impact on the opportunities afforded to low-income children in America.

On the practical side, Donald Trump will not be the president beyond January 20 and many, if not all, of his executive orders will be rescinded almost immediately by the Biden Administration. Given that Democrats are largely opposed to school choice – including Biden’s selections to lead HHS and the Dept. of Education – this EO will be amongst the first to go.

The EO also calls for states to submit plans to HHS for how they’ll use the money. How long will it take to draft those plans? Does anyone believe Gov. Laura Kelly would suddenly put student needs ahead of the political demands of the KNEA and produce a workable plan? What does the approval process look like at the federal level? Once approved, how quickly can the money get out the door to the designated non-profit organizations? How does that square with a presidential change in 23 days?

That begs the question of, why bother if Biden is likely to overturn and it would be bureaucratically impossible to implement the program in three weeks?

Which brings us to the political.

President Trump is issuing this order by way of demonstrating his support for school choice. Good for him, so far as it goes. But, the end result is politics of policy theater, not policy substance.

Politicians of all parties have long used the theatric to advance policy goals. Now, however, good policy outcomes are merely a bi-product of endless political theater.

President Trump issuing this order and President Biden rescinding it will continue this trend. Each will offer some fan service to their constituencies while American children continue to suffer. The theater will have delayed the real work to deliver real educational opportunity to America’s neediest children.

We needn’t get into the questions of federalism in education, concerns about usurpation of state-based school choice, or issues of liberty for religious schools that accompany any debate about federal involvement. Those who believe in limited government should always keep these concerns front of mind even if we’re inclined to agree with the stated goals of a policy.

What’s more, this action highlights the state and local role in K-12 education. The federal government, rightly, has very limited, if still too much, impact on education. The real work to be done on meaningful choice will be driven in statehouses and local boards of education not in DC.

KPI has been a part of a coalition to initiate and protect Kansas’ only school choice program. That same coalition hosts a rally that brings nearly 200 kids to the statehouse each year to advocate for school choice. Our documentary on the dramatic, choice-driven gains in Florida’s low-income achievement is driving the debate in Kansas.

The importance of meaningful choice is only more important as kids are being harmed by school shutdowns, online challenges, and incredible uncertainty. We’ll work with anyone to pass state-based money-follow-the-child plan in the upcoming 2021 legislative session no matter what is going on at the federal level or who occupies the White House.