Not all education choice initiatives are created equal.
West Virginia’s near-universal Hope Scholarship, for example, empowers families to choose the learning environment that’s the best fit for their children—without costing taxpayers more. Microgrants do exactly the opposite.
The Hope Scholarship is an education savings account, or ESA, that families can use for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, educational services and therapies, and more. The ESA provides students leaving the public system or entering kindergarten with nearly 100% of existing state-level K-12 funding. That’s about $4,300 per pupil, and in West Virginia, where the average private school tuition is about $4,750, it goes a long way. In contrast, Idaho’s microgrant program, Empowering Parents, gives only $1,000 toward various educational expenses (excluding private school tuition) yet still costs taxpayers more money. That’s because there’s a catch: Idaho’s microgrants are primarily for children who stay in public schools.
That’s a common problem with microgrant programs. At the margin, West Virginia helps a child’s family afford a better option; Idaho does not.
The larger economic problem is that microgrants are microsocialism. Rather than redirecting funds from the existing K-12 education budget, as ESAs do, microgrants generally require new money. That means taxpayers fork over additional money the state distributes to somebody else. That’s why the Left does not see microgrants as a threat to the status quo. If the point is merely a larger handout, the Left loves it. But the point should be that every family finds the educational environment that’s best for their child. By that standard, microgrants are counterproductive.
Not only are microgrants bad policy, but they’re also a bad education reform strategy.
When presented with two proposals, one more robust and one more modest, legislators tend to opt for the more modest proposal. This way, they can have their cake and eat it, too, getting credit for at least doing something while blocking the more expansive reform.
Aware of this dynamic, proponents of microgrants portray them as a form of “school choice.” Legislators then think they can placate school choice proponents by enacting microgrants while reassuring choice opponents that they blocked more robust policies, such as ESAs. In this sense, microgrants are entirely parasitic on efforts to enact broad education choice policies. This is why proponents of microgrants work almost exclusively in red states, where the prospects of enacting choice policies are the best they’ve ever been. Microgrant proponents count on education choice coalitions to do the hard work of moving the Overton Window, then slip in and pass their own modest proposal at the expense of true school choice proposals.
Some microgrant proponents have actively undermined ESA legislation in order to get their own microgrant bills across the finish line.
Earlier this year, the Koch-funded group “Yes. Every Kid,” or YEK, asked members of Idaho’s school choice coalition to withdraw their support for a promising ESA bill (or at least revise it to prohibit using ESAs for private school tuition), despite prior assurances that they would support it. YEK staff confessed that they had reached an agreement with Idaho Gov. Brad Little to drop YEK’s support for the ESA in return for his support of their microgrant proposal. The Idaho Education Association even supported the bill because they had “gotten assurances” from the governor and other lawmakers that the microgrants could not be used for private school tuition.
When the coalition decided to press ahead with the ESA proposal, YEK’s lobbyists campaigned against it.
Their backstabbing paid off. Although the Idaho House had passed an ESA bill the previous year, the proposal this time failed in the Idaho House Education Committee by a single vote. That same day, Gov. Little signed the YEK-backed microgrant bill into law.
Microgrants are macro-expensive and a bad reform strategy. Legislators who truly want to empower families with educational choices should focus on advancing education savings accounts and eschew policies that are but a pale imitation.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner