The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare many of the dysfunctions infecting America’s overly bureaucratic and politicized public education system. Thankfully, it also revealed a cure: educational freedom with parents in charge.
The Heritage Foundation has just released its first Education Freedom Report Card, a comparative study of student and parent rights in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its findings are revealing, and perhaps to none more than the Texas Legislature, whose timidity in the face of special-interest politics is largely responsible for the Lone Star State’s disappointing rank.
The more we learn about the effects of prolonged pandemic-related school closures, the more catastrophic we find them to have been.
The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress found that students’ scores in math and reading have plunged to their lowest levels in decades. Measures of children’s mental health have deteriorated, too. All this, remember, without a shred of evidence that school closures were ever medically justified.
Leftist ideologues in elected office, public health agencies, the news media, teacher unions, and school boards sacrificed a generation of American children to ignorance and anxiety in service to their own narrow interests. It wasn’t a “mistake” or a “tragedy.” It was something more like a crime.
As usual, the American people must now reverse another elite-driven disaster. That’s where the Education Freedom Report Card comes in. It’s a survey of education policies across the country, and particularly of each state’s accommodations for—or hostility to—parents’ role as their children’s primary educators.
Do states allow school choice, and how many students have access to these options? How much education spending funds students vs. bureaucracies? How difficult or easy is it to form charter schools or home school? How restrictive are teacher certification requirements? How transparent are schools to moms and dads when it comes to curricula? How much transparency do states give parents when it comes to class materials and content?
It won’t surprise readers who followed education policy debates the last two years that Florida tops the 2022 Education Freedom Report Card. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s dogged adherence to scientific data and defiance of woke pieties led him not only to keep his state’s schools open, but to shepherd child-protecting and parent-empowering reforms through the Florida legislature.
Arizona ranks second, and will be contending for the top spot in next year’s Report Card after Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed the most comprehensive educational choice law in the country: universal ESAs, funded with $6,500 per student, every year from kindergarten through high school.3
And then there’s Texas. Despite its unrivaled economic, geographic, and political advantages, the Lone Star State ranks 12th.
The methodological reason for Texas’s mediocre grade is that we rank 35th in school choice—embarrassingly sandwiched between deep blue Rhode Island and Connecticut. The deeper reason Texas has such weak school-choice laws is a select group of legislators with ties to pro-teachers' union special interests.
This is not unusual. Educational empowerment is often a low priority in state capitals because elected politicians these days tend to be the sorts of people who already exercise school choice by being well-to-do. They can afford expensive homes in the best school districts or private school tuitions, or getting by on one income to allow for homeschooling. (Imagine how different our school system would be if lawmakers were limited to the same options available to the lowest-income families!)
The good news is Gov. Greg Abbott this year endorsed a statewide ESA program—so that Austin, like Phoenix, would fund students instead of systems. Reforms like this have always been important but given the emotional and educational toll COVID-19 took, they are also urgent.
As with learning loss, the damage done by missed opportunities in education policy compound over time. Every school year that passes without Texas updating its policies, another generation of kids falls further behind.
Texas should embrace parental-rights and educational pluralism to let every family and student find their own best path forward—and set a new bar for state education freedom in America.
This piece originally appeared in the Austin-American Statesman