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Thursday, November 4, 2021

Virginia’s Governor Race Shows America’s School Choice Moment Has Finally Arrived

For months, all eyes have been on the Virginia governor's race as both Democrats and Republicans saw it as a battleground for things to come.

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For months, all eyes have been on the Virginia governor’s race as both Democrats and Republicans saw it as a battleground for things to come. As it turned out, Republican Glenn Youngkin easily won the seat in a state that Joe Biden carried by over 10 points not even a year ago.

While Democrats attempted to make this election about Donald Trump, Youngkin took a decidedly different approach—focusing heavily on education and the issues that have animated parents across the country during the pandemic.

In contrast, Youngkin’s opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, elevated teacher’s unions, supported vaccine mandates for children, and sided with those who’ve pushed lockdowns and masking on schools as well. He even went so far in a debate as to say parents should not be making decisions on their children’s education when asked about controversies over curricula including critical race theory and sexually-explicit materials.

“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Unsurprisingly, these stances did not sit well with voters.

Families have endured almost two years of pandemic policy, with those with school-age children arguably suffering the most. Parents have had to scramble to school their children at home, rearrange work schedules, and deal with the growing anxiety and mental health issues their kids are facing as a result.

Parents have also gotten to see firsthand what’s actually going on in their children’s classrooms during this time, and many have not been pleased. To make matters worse, when they attempted to go through the proper channels to address these significant issues—their elected school boards—they were shut down, not allowed to speak, and ultimately labeled domestic terrorists by their federal government who attempted to sic the FBI on them in a coordinated attack between the Biden Administration and the National School Board Association.

Change Is Coming

For decades, libertarians and true conservatives have pushed for school choice in response to increasingly failing schools, disproportionate educational outcomes, and waste in the public school system. While budgets have bloated (schools now spend an average of $15,000 per year per student), outcomes have continued to worsen. On top of that, public schools have become government indoctrination camps that teach children one version of events, compliance, and what to think, instead of how to think. The results of this are evident throughout our entire society.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of school choice, it can take multiple forms. In recent years, the most popular approach has been education savings accounts (ESAs), which would function similarly to health savings accounts (HSAs).

Basically, families would receive the money the state already spends on their child’s education in a fund that they would then have discretion over and the ability to allocate towards a number of educational services. They could reinvest in their public school and stay if it is good, or they could use the fund towards private school, homeschooling, tutors, online courses, and supplies. They could also roll the funds over year after year (which would incentivize frugality) and ultimately pay for college with it as well.

Since most private and homeschooling options are far cheaper than what the government spends per child, this would mean children receive a far better education at a much better price. It would also reintroduce competition back into the educational market, forcing government schools to improve or lose funds. School choice would break children out of the racially-zoned education system too, which dates back to the policy of redlining. Redlining formerly prohibited people of color from buying homes in certain areas, forcing them into inner-city zip codes. To this day, zip codes are used to determine where children attend school, and notably, inner-city schools continue to be the worst—trapping whole families in generational poverty that a better education could help them escape.

Lastly, school choice puts disputes over policies like masking, lockdowns, mandates, and curriculum to bed. Parents should have the ultimate say in the environment they want their children to be educated in. School choice would allow people to peacefully group themselves with others who desire the same and therefore cease the unrest we currently see at school board meetings.

School choice used to be a third rail issue not even five years ago. I should know, I was working to pass it in Tennessee back in 2016 and 2017. Democrats didn’t want it for the reasons that they still oppose it—they work to protect the interests of unions and administrators vs families. But Republicans were hesitant at the time as well.

Those days are long gone. After the injustices in our education system were laid bare over the past year and a half, parents are rising up to demand control of their kids’ futures and looking for options to remove government from the picture. School choice is no longer a fringe issue. Indeed, many have become single-issue voters on it.

In fact, a national school choice poll now shows 67 percent of voters want school choice. And if the Virginia race tells us anything, it’s that parents are going to vote for it as soon as they get the chance.

Who Does Your Kid Belong To?

While it is unfortunate that it takes a catastrophe like COVID-19 for many to recognize the depth of problems in our educational system, we can at least hope that a silver-lining of this pandemic is a permanent wake-up call for parents.

The actions taken and statements made on education during the course of the pandemic by the left have made it clear that they believe the nation’s children belong to them. Just the mention of school choice or parental control draws sneers from those who feel entitled to the cash cow each child represents in the system. For them, it is not about educational outcomes (clearly), but rather about control.

Economist Murray Rothbard wrote, “The issue which has been joined in the past and in the present is: shall there be a free society with parental control, or a despotism with State control?”

For too long, government actors (school administrators, teachers, unions, and politicians) were given almost total control over education. Homeschooling wasn’t even legal in all 50 states until the 1990s. Now, they are primed to lose even more control as demands for school choice and parental involvement in the classroom grow.

Rothbard also noted that, “…the State has been warring with parents for control over their children.” That’s also evident right now as unions attempt to gaslight parents over what happened in the schools over the past year and the left attempts to malign parental control over education as a racism issue.

But if Virginia is the bellwether many believe it to be, parents won’t be backing down this time around. School choice is now a “main character” in the public policy drama, and it’s not playing second-fiddle again anytime soon.

  • Hannah Cox is the former Content Manager and Brand Ambassador for the Foundation for Economic Education.