Educational Choice is the New Normal

By Kimberly Sawatka

Twenty-five years ago, a new idea emerged from Milwaukee, Wis., when low-income parents in Milwaukee public schools were empowered to use a voucher to pay for their child’s public education at a private school.

What started out as a radical new idea, today, parental choice is increasingly becoming the new normal.

In the last 11 years there has been a dramatic growth in publicly funded private school choice program. Currently there are 47 programs in 23 states, allowing for more than 3 million scholarship opportunities for children nationwide.

Parental choice is no longer a single party’s philosophical idea but a bipartisan issue encouraging legislators to work across party lines in order to put children first. As this education revolution is taking the nation by storm, leaders are embracing boldness to create bigger, better and stronger programs.

The results of the 2014 election cycle served as a vivid illustration that there has been a sea change in political support for politicians who support and advance school choice. Teachers unions poured more than a hundred million dollars into elections in order to beat candidates supporting parental choice. In the general election, AFC supported candidates won 92 percent of their races – in almost all of those races AFC-backed candidates faced well-funded teachers’ union-backed opponents.

The results paid off and in this legislative cycle there has been a surge in support for private school choice programs and demand from parents for access to the programs.

Most recently, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law a universal education savings account program less than a month after signing into a law a low-income tax credit scholarship program. These two back-to-back programs were fueled by the demand from parents and the boldness of leaders like Gov. Sandoval and Sen. Scott Hammond, among others.

Indiana has one of the largest parental choice programs, seeing exponential growth in the past four years. Parents are demanding their right to choose their children’s educational environment, and proved it in the last year as participation in the program increased by almost 10,000 applicants. Florida is another state that offers a robust package of choice programs and serves 99,922 students statewide. Parents are taking advantage of enacted programs and choosing the best learning environment for their children.

It is also important to note that events like National School Choice Week have more than doubled in size every year since inception in 2011. Earlier this year, there were more than 11,000 events held throughout the country to celebrate National School Choice Week.

In what could become the biggest demonstration of the momentum in support of educational choice is the broad support among candidates running for president in 2016. Nearly every major recent candidate has featured parental choice as center piece in their campaign, and the few candidates who do not support private school choice will provide a stark contrast for voters.

As the 2016 election nears, and the new norm settles in, it is important to recognize that the work is far from over – there are still far too many children trapped in schools that fail to meet their needs. The only way to ensure the momentum made remains permanent is continually challenging the status quo by aiming higher, acting bolder and continuing to seek new ways to empower parents and ensure every child receives access to a quality education.