Now is the Time for the School Choice Now Act
By Greg R. Lawson
In one form or another, the new school year is or is about to be underway. Teachers, students and parents across the country face tough questions, challenges, and uncertainties amid the ongoing pandemic and its perplexing disruptions. And ready or not, the school bell rings.
With back-to-school plans ranging from teaching students anywhere from the classroom to the family room, this school year likely will require more flexibility than any other in modern history.
The School Choice Now Act, provides some of that flexibility by including bold proposals by U.S. Sens. Tim Scott, R-SC, and Lamar Alexander, R-TN, that can help families and educators navigate these uncharted waters. The legislation extends critical support to states, families and schools nationwide looking to get back to school.
In several ways, the act builds upon the concept of federal education savings accounts – or ESAs – that give parents greater authority to use their tax dollars on education-related materials and services, such as computers, textbooks, tutors and online classes. The Buckeye Institute has long-advocated state and federal ESAs, and with only 38 percent of Ohio’s public school students going to go back to school full-time, millions of families facing hybrid remote learning environments and looking for alternatives to public education need all the help and options they can get this year.
The School Choice Now Act provides that financial help and makes educational options more affordable.
First, the legislation provides one-time appropriations to support non-profit “scholarship-granting organizations” in each state. These non-profits receive qualified contributions from individuals and businesses to create scholarships for eligible students to attend qualified, non-public schools. Scholarships funded through the act also may pay for direct educational and home-schooling expenses – a key flexibility considering how many students will be learning from home rather than on K-12 campuses.
As with ESA funds, parents may use School Choice Now Act scholarship dollars for tuition at private schools and for remote learning resources and tutors. Significantly, the act also makes clear that any private, religious or home school educators may participate in such scholarship programs without fear of federal bureaucrats monitoring their every move.
Second, the proposal lays the foundation for expanding school choice opportunities down the road with a permanent dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for individuals and corporations that contribute to scholarship granting organizations. As scholarships become increasingly popular with parents surveying the educational landscape for the best opportunities for their children, such a tax credit will foster more school choice programs and encourage states to design their own tax credit scholarships for education better tailored to meeting student needs.
The School Choice Now Act should be part of any federal COVID-19 relief package designed to get America back to work and school safely. It offers immediate financial support to families and schools facing unexpected educational expenses and challenges, and it lays the groundwork for long-term opportunities that will strengthen academics and learning in this country for generations to come. Given all the upheaval and uncertainty facing our students and families, America needs school choice now and later.
Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute