Teachers unions have long opposed efforts to give parents more choices in education. But parents today should quote something from Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in the 19th century, to union members: “Doing for people what they can and ought to do for themselves is a dangerous experiment.”
That surely applies to doing things like choosing a school for someone else’s child. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is marking the celebration of National School Choice Week this year (Jan. 22-28) with a proposal to give parents more ability to do things for themselves and their child’s education, all without expanding the federal footprint in K-12 schools.
We should not hold our breath waiting for today’s union leaders to consider their founder’s philosophy before announcing their opposition.
Lee has proposed allowing families to use their child’s portion of funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal law for K-12 schools, and invest it in their student’s 529 college savings plan. These plans allow families to invest their personal savings in an account that grows tax-free and is dedicated to their child’s education.
Lee’s proposal allows low-income families to take a portion of their federal allotment—approximately $1,500 per year, depending on a number of student characteristics, including area of residence and poverty indicators—and deposit the money in a 529 account to pay for the child’s current or future education needs.
Thanks to efforts by Congress over the past five years to expand the uses of 529 plans, students can use the accounts to pay for K-12 private school tuition, in addition to college tuition and other postsecondary expenses. The new proposal would further expand the uses of 529 accounts to include personal tutors and education therapies for children with special needs.
Lee’s proposal also combines dozens of federal grant programs into two formulas, a welcome effort at simplifying the dizzying array of federal K-12 funding provisions. On the whole, then, Lee’s proposal accomplishes a rare feat by simultaneously offering parents and students more options in education while also reducing federal intervention in local school affairs.
Parents around the country have proved that if given the chance, they will make informed choices about their children’s education.
In North Carolina, research found that some 64% of families there who are using education savings accounts—state-funded accounts that allow families to pay for a variety of K-12 expenses, including private school tuition and textbooks—use their child’s account to pay for more than one education product or service simultaneously.
More than 46,000 Arizona families are using similar accounts in their state, and some 65,000 Florida families are using accounts to choose how and where their children learn.
These state-based education savings accounts are similar to 529 accounts because parents have the option to pay for a variety of education expenses, even customizing their child’s education. The state examples demonstrate that parents are not afraid to assume the responsibility for making those decisions and will select the schools, personal tutors, online classes, and other options that meet their student’s unique needs.
Ronald Reagan chose to remind teacher unions of Gompers’ positions on individual responsibility in March 1981. Reagan spoke to an AFL-CIO audience and quoted the union leader at length: “In the last analysis, the welfare of the workers depends upon their own initiative. Whatever is done under the guise of philanthropy or social morality, which in any way lessens initiative, is the greatest crime that can be committed against the toilers,” Reagan quoted from Gompers.
Why should a parent’s initiative to improve their child’s learning experience be treated differently? Those enterprising decisions that families make for their students’ education are the beating heart of National School Choice Week. Reagan asked his audience to remember that “individual freedom and ingenuity are at the very core of everything that we’ve accomplished.”
Lee’s proposal provides more freedom to a group of people who are motivated to be most ingenious; namely, parents in low-income areas who are desperate to give their children greater opportunity.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal