This piece was originally published on the The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Education Flypaper blog on January 5, 2019.
The Fordham Institute’s analysis of “charter school deserts” helps answer a vital question: Where are neighborhoods in which low-income children lack access to schools of choice? Their interactive tool provides a literal roadmap for expanding charters where they are most needed.
A recent update to the map conveniently shows that private schools pick up the slack in many charter school deserts. This is especially true in Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. It is no coincidence these cities are in states with vibrant private choice programs, such as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education scholarship accounts (ESAs).
But the map also illustrates how many communities remain deprived of choice. Look at Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Boston and you recognize the need to establish oases of opportunity in charter school deserts.
Hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from private choice programs since the first—Milwaukee’s voucher program—was enacted in 1990. As America closes out the third decade of private choice, here are three developments that could help states fill the access gaps.
Customized, multi-use choice
The original voucher concept was simple, and has long been practiced in higher education: Instead of sending funding directly to a school, attach the funds to the children and let their parents send them to schools of their choosing.
However, much has changed since the transformative inception of vouchers. In many aspects of our lives—be it transportation, ordering food, or listening to music—personalization is king. And this reality is reflected in ESAs, which are state-supervised spending accounts containing a child’s education funds that can be used to pay for multiple educational services.
Instead of being limited to local brick-and-mortar schools, ESAs empower parents with a menu of options from which to customize. A participating child can learn math and science online, English and history at home, see a tutor several times a week, and even save leftover money for future college costs.
There is appetite in dozens of state legislatures to pass ESAs, which would be welcomed by growing numbers of homeschoolers, hybrid-homeschoolers, and micro-schoolers, who use them to fully embrace customized education. Many parents are foregoing the traditional system of schooling to search for something different. It’s only a matter of time until governments and funding systems catch up with this “do it yourself” spirit.
Expanding eligibility to working-class families
Another developing trend is the expansion of choice programs to serve working-class families, and is best illustrated in Florida.
The Florida Tax-Credit (FTC), which now boasts the largest student participation of any private choice program in America, was originally limited to students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. In 2016, the FTC’s eligibility was expanded to allow partial scholarships for families with moderately higher incomes.
However, private schooling remains out of reach for many Floridians. According to wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a child in a family of four whose mother is an ambulance dispatcher and father is a carpenter is not eligible for even a partial scholarship. A mother employed as a school social worker whose husband works as a paramedic is also ineligible for the FTC.
There is more work to be done to expand choice in Florida. This is especially true nationally, where we’ve seen private school enrollment decline among working class families. Crucially, the eligibility expansion should be accompanied by increased funding to ensure that low- and middle-class families are not competing for the same scholarships.
Possible SCOTUS ruling on Blaine Amendments
Few things could do more to expand private choice than a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against so-called Blaine Amendments that are found in most state constitutions. It is notoriously difficult to forecast how SCOTUS will rule, but a recent lawsuit in Montana could provide an avenue for the justices to act.
Blaine Amendments are relics of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anti-Catholic bigotry. At the time, public schools were primarily Protestant, and as scores of Catholic immigrants came to America, the Protestant majority grew concerned with a growing Catholic influence. So following the lead of Congressman James Blaine, states amended their constitutions to forbid public funding to “sectarian” schools, which in practice meant forbidding funds from Catholic schools. To this day, Blaine Amendments remain barriers to public funding of Catholic schools, Islamic schools, yeshivas, and other religiously-based schools across the nation.
Last month’s ruling by Montana’s high court—invalidating a tax-credit scholarship program on Blaine grounds—is out of step with other courts that have found such programs to be legally sound.
It is possible that SCOTUS could hear an appeal of this lawsuit, and we know that Justice Brett Kavanaugh has previously applauded the notion that “religious institutions participate as equals in society and in state benefit programs.”
Should Blaine Amendments be deemed unconstitutional, an opening could emerge for states to pass sweeping choice programs and serve children with educational opportunity.
About the author
James Paul is an Associate Policy Director who focuses on expanding opportunity through private education choice. In this role, James provides analysis and support to state partners regarding the design and implementation of tax-credit scholarship and education savings account programs. Prior to joining ExcelinEd, James was a Policy Analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he worked on a variety of state education issues. James graduated from Syracuse University and resides in the Washington, D.C. area.