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‘We are on the right side of history’ regarding school choice, says Agudath Israel leader

Following big wins in 2021 for school-choice proponents, 2023 may become “the year of universal school choice,” experts tell JNS.

Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Arkansas LEARNS act into law on March 8, Arkansas became the 11th state to adopt “education savings accounts” that afford families the most educational financial flexibility and choice.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen, national director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of America, told JNS that 2021 was “a breakthrough year of school choice” due to the “sheer number of states creating new or expanding existing programs.”

“However 2023 may become the year of universal school choice,” he said. “Following on the heels of Arizona and West Virginia, three more states passed universal school choice programs already in 2023. The bar has been raised, and parents are more engaged on this issue than ever before, so I expect to see other states and especially governors trying to compete for the boldest program.”

Agudah is currently working in Texas, Florida, Indiana and Ohio, said Motzen.

Jason Bedrick, an education policy research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told JNS that 2021 was a big year for school choice because during the COVID pandemic, parents got the chance to see on Zoom what their children were learning on a daily basis. Depending on the age of students, that might have included instruction related to critical race theory or Black Lives Matter; transgender policies governing bathroom use; and “social transitioning,” or using different names and pronouns for children without informing their parents.

“School choice has stabilized neighborhoods, as it took away the incentive of young families to move to the suburbs in search of better schooling,” he said. “All Americans benefit when parents have the ability to choose the educational setting that best meets their child’s needs.” — A.D. Motzen

“These sorts of policies have been freaking parents out,” reported Bedrick. “What we’re seeing now is a blanket policy of mistrusting parents and saying any parent, especially any religious parents, can’t be trusted with the knowledge that their kid is going through this. We are going to take the initiative to act in their stead in what we believe is the child’s best interest.”

‘Creating a price floor’

In 2021, 19 states enacted 32 new or expanded educational choice programs, according to Bedrick. That number not only overshadowed prior years, but the programs were larger in scope. West Virginia passed the first publicly funded, universal education savings account program that year.

Arizona’s new law creates “educational freedom accounts,” which are the state’s take on what others call education savings accounts (ESAs). A school voucher is a one-time, single-use coupon, while an ESA is a “restricted use bank account that you can use for a wide variety of educational expenses,” whether tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschooling curricula or therapy for children with special needs, Bedrick told JNS. ESAs can roll over from year to year, similar to a health savings account, for instance.

“It recognizes that education doesn’t have to be in one building called the school,” said Bedrick. “With a voucher, you’re creating a price floor, and as we’ve seen in higher education, there is the potential for tuition inflation.”

Since families don’t have to spend ESAs at once in the same place, there is no price floor, and schools compete not just against one another but against tutoring, textbooks and future savings. “There’s a much stronger competitive downward pressure on price,” he said.

Motzen said school choice is good public policy that is becoming more popular. “We are on the right side of history on this issue,” he said. “What we have to do is speak up louder and get more involved to ensure that these policies are expanded.”

Orthodox Jewish families who live in states with school choice can send their children to schools that best meet their needs and receive tuition scholarships. And even those without school-aged children can benefit, according to Motzen.

“School choice has stabilized neighborhoods, as it took away the incentive of young families to move to the suburbs in search of better schooling,” he said. “All Americans benefit when parents have the ability to choose the educational setting that best meets their child’s needs.”

Few blue states have school-choice programs, but Illinois stands out for its “robust” program, which elected Democrats support publicly, according to Motzen. “Thanks to the work of my Agudah colleagues, hundreds of families receive more than $13,000 per child to attend Jewish day schools in Illinois,” most of them in the Chicagoland area, he said.

“The fastest way to get school choice in all 50 states, including the very bluest state, is through a federal program,” added Motzen. “We are working closely with the sponsors of the Educational Choice for Children Act, which would provide $10 billion for a federal scholarship tax credit program.”

‘False claim of racism and elitism’

Some opponents of school choice claim that it is racist and elitist. Not only did the Center for American Progress cover the “racist origins of private-school vouchers,” but it stated that “echoes of segregated past” still remain. “The impacts of the first private school voucher programs in the South still reverberate today in battles for adequate and equitable funding of public education,” it stated.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2022, researchers at the University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Virginia Tech recorded that “school choice increases racial segregation even when parents do not care about race.” And a Washington Post “Outlook” column argued that “the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ stands in stark contrast to the true goals of school choice advocates.”

“It’s ironic that opponents of school choice—some of whom attended or send, or sent, their own children to private schools—are using the false claim of racism and elitism to prevent minority and low-income students from attending these schools,” said Motzen. “The truth is that giving all students educational freedom reduces the current segregation that occurs in public schools, which rely on attendance zones.”

Bedrick said that some Jewish federations have moved towards neutrality on school choice. Many subsidize Jewish schools, to some extent, and recognize how important school choice is to Orthodox communities, he said.

“There are a ton of politicians, who oppose school choice because it takes money out of the public school system, who send their own children to private school,” pointed out Bedrick. “That has the same financial effect on the local public school as a student who leaves with a voucher.”

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