Does School Choice Allow State Control of Private Schools?

Students in a classroom
Students in a classroom | Image by PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock

While the concept of taxpayer-funded school choice has typically prompted derision from left-wing politicians and professional associations, there has also been concern on the other side of the political aisle, with some claiming it opens the door to government control of private schools.

The Dallas Express recently spoke with right-leaning activists on both sides of the issue to better understand some of the arguments for and against school choice.

Sheri Few, president of U.S. Parents Involved in Education, opposes school choice from what she described as an “ultra-conservative” point of view.

“Typically, it is the Left that criticizes school choice. … Our organization is very conservative,” she told DX. “I like to think that we’re even ultra-conservative because I think it’s a compromise to put government money in schools.”

Few said she believes school choice can be “dangerous” since it directs more government funding to private schools, which purportedly gives the state leverage over what can be taught in private classrooms.

“We know that the government, especially the federal government, tries to control the classrooms with the funding they provide,” she explained. “That’s how they manipulate what’s happening in the classroom. So most conservatives, and especially the think tanks that the legislators usually listen to, have been pushing school choice for as long as I can remember.”

Few said she used to believe school choice was the “silver bullet” that could fix education, but she eventually came to believe it was “dangerous to put government money in private and Christian schools.”

However, proponents of school choice argue that this has yet to actually take place in any of the states that have implemented it.

Mandy Drogin, campaign director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told DX that while concerns about government interference in private education are valid, the scenario described by Few has simply not happened.

“I 100% understand the concern,” she said. “But the great news is that school choice has been used for parents to make these selections, including private schools, in 32 other states plus the District of Columbia. This is not a new concept.”

“This fear that people have [is] valid, [but] I would like to ensure that they look across what’s going on [across] the country and see that that has not happened and it is not happening,” she continued.

Drogin noted that under the most recent school choice legislation proposed in Texas, there was no “direct” funding coming from the government into the classrooms. Rather, SB 1 — which was passed by the Texas Senate last year during the regular session but failed to make it out of the House — would have created education savings accounts (ESA) for families.

The program would have given families access to up to $8,000 of taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and other education expenses, such as textbooks and uniforms.

“[The money] goes into an account held by the comptroller’s office, so it’s not going into a parent’s personal account,” explained Drogin. “The parent goes into their portal, and they select how they would like to use the education savings accounts. The parents are making that choice.”

“We can see where this has been highly successful … around the country,” she continued. “People who raised that red flag don’t talk about the fact that we already have these programs both in pre-K and Head Start. We have them at college-level programs, whether it’s the Pell Grant or the GI Bill or things like that. We already empower citizens and parents to make choices and direct funding that is appropriated and allocated for a student to get an education.”

Drogin added that the types of ESAs advocated for in Texas have always been optional. She said the legislation proposed in Texas has also included “strong legal protections” for parents and educators.

“There’s strong language that would ensure that there’s no limit on the exercise of institutional or religious values. … The law is crafted to protect creed practices, performance standards, the curriculum selected, the admission policies, the employment policies, and the assessments used,” she explained. “The legislation that was pushed here in Texas for education savings accounts ensures that there is no legal requirement to modify any practices within the private schools.”

Drogin argued that activists who argue school choice would allow the government to impede on the rights of parents and private educators are not fully informed about the issue.

“It’s really important to note that when people throw up these concerns, they’re just either parroting concerns that are coming from … unions or associations that don’t want to see this happen or they’re not actually looking at the legislation,” she said.

Furthermore, Drogin noted that the school choice proposals considered last year in Texas would not have used federal taxpayer money; instead, they would have funded the program using state taxpayer dollars.

“There are no federal dollars, there are no federal strings attached, and there are no limits on the exercise of religious or institutional values. That’s all been carefully crafted by legal scholars,” she said. “We are not empowering the government to step in and take over or influence. We’re simply saying … that [parents] should have the autonomy to make this choice.”

Still, activists like Few say an alternative with less government involvement is preferable to the school choice programs being implemented around the country. Few told DX that instead of providing “school vouchers,” the government should give tax credits to families who choose an alternative to public education.

“The alternative, in our opinion, is the only one that would keep the government out of the private and Christian schools. And that is to provide a tax credit for parents who make an alternative choice,” she said. “For example, you have the federal child tax credit. All parents are able to check a box and deduct a certain number of dollars per child and their family.”

“The federal tax credit needs to be increased for those parents so that they can keep more of their own money and be able to afford alternatives,” she said, adding that states should “follow suit” and provide tax credits to families who do not “choose to put their children in government schools.”

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