This week, as children across the country head back to school, Heritage President and lifelong educator, Kevin Roberts explains everything parents need to know about school choice.
Michelle Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero, and this is Heritage Explains. It's that time of year again.
Cordero: Okay, guys, who's ready to go back to school?
Austin: Not me.
Lilly: I am.
Cordero: What are you excited about?
Lilly: I'm excited about back-to-school shopping.
Cordero: What about you, Austin?
Cordero: They pretty much feel the same way they always do about returning to school, but, this year, I feel different. With new information surfacing daily about public school curriculum, I can't help but be concerned with what they might be learning. Who exactly am I trusting with my children?
Clip: California Teachers Association is one of the most powerful unions in the country, and it is purely an organ of the Democratic Party. Recently, the union held a conference to discuss how to indoctrinate school children without their parents' knowledge. One first grade teacher called Blaire Wyatt explained that it's best to hold meetings for gender identity clubs during lunchtime so that parents never know.
Blaire Wyatt: My room does not have a flag. It used to be there, but I took it down during COVID, because it made me uncomfortable, and I packed it away and I don't know where. I haven't found it yet, but my kid today goes, "Hey, it's weird that we just stand and then we say it to nothing," and I'm like, "Oh, well, I got to find it. I'm working on it. I got you." In the meantime, I tell this kid, "We do have a flag in the class that you can pledge your allegiance to," and he looks around and he goes, "Oh, that one?"
Cordero: The flag this California teacher is referring to is the Gay Pride flag. I could go on and on with these clips. They're never ending. As it turns out, I am not alone in my concerns. The New York Times recently noted that, in New York City, the nation's largest school district, they've lost 50,000 students over the past two years and, in Michigan, enrollment remains more than 50,000 below pre-pandemic levels.
Cordero: Today, we're going to talk about a solution to this problem and, ready for this, parents, you are the solution by advocating for school choice in your state. What's school choice? According to edchoice.org, it allows public education funds, also known as your tax dollars, to follow students to the schools or services that are best for them, whether that's to a public school, private school, homeschool, you name it.
Cordero: This week, Heritage president and lifelong educator Dr. Kevin Roberts will explain everything you need to know about school choice. Our conversation after this short break.
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Cordero: Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this important issue. As a mother, I know just how much is at stake here. The other day, I was talking with a friend, and she was telling me about some school redistricting going on in her neighborhood and I casually brought up school choice, and she had no idea what I was talking about. If you were talking to a parent with a student in a public school, how would you explain school choice to them?
Kevin Roberts: Well, I would say two things. The first is parent to parent. Coming from this public school graduate, I've attended nothing other than public schools in my life, and so I believe that they're a very important part of our American fabric, but parent to parent, that as parents, regardless of our politics, regardless of where we live, regardless of the color of our skin, we want what's best for our children, but also for every other child. I mean, that's one of the human things, but it's also a distinctively American thing is this belief we have in equality of opportunity and, whereas public schools are appropriate for many children, perhaps most children, that they aren't the best solution for every child because every parent knows, you know this, every child even from the same family can be different from siblings, and so there are different educational options. I also know that as a teacher, but what school choice does is put that decision in the hands of parents. I think every parent would understand that.
Roberts: The second thing is, because I hear this, too, from my own neighbors who are asking about school choice and they accept that first point that I make about there needing to be many options, and school choice is the mechanical way to make that happen, they say, "Well, Kevin, aren't you taking money from the public school system and putting it in another system? That's going to harm the kids who remain." That's a fair question.
Roberts: Well, the nice thing about working at The Heritage Foundation is that our really smart people, especially Dr. Lindsey Burke and Dr. Jay Greene and Jonathan Butcher, have shown that, where you have school choice, you actually improve the quality of education in public schools. In other words, speaking to your friend, speaking to my neighbors, speaking to some cousins of mine who have been asking questions about school choice, it makes all the sense in the world for every child.
Cordero: Yeah. You talked about taking money from schools. Do vouchers and tax credits, this money that we're taking for school choice, does it offer enough to cover full tuition for, let's say, a private school? I think, sometimes, people think school choice would work for a student with special needs to supplement some sort of programming, but it wouldn't work for everyday students.
Roberts: The short answer is yes. The little bit longer answer is that it depends on the program. School choice, properly devised, is something that every state legislature decides. That's the beautiful thing about our American system is that, ideally, we would have 50 different school choice systems ranging from Arizona where the answers decidedly, yes, that the state allotment for every student in their schools would cover almost every private school tuition, and then you have other systems, say, Tennessee which has a special needs school choice program where that's going to cover a percentage of the tuition. The ideal is that every dollar follow every child. Every penny that we're spending on education in the United States ought to follow every student. When that happens, and you do the mathematics, then it works out that that more than covers the average private school tuition.
Roberts: This is the reality though. I founded a school and was running a school in Louisiana. That was the second school to participate in Louisiana's Private School Choice Program. We adjusted our tuition for those students coming in. There was a shortfall of several hundred dollars per student. We did that because we believed as a private school in making sure we had a very diverse student body. Almost every private school is going to make that decision, and I believe they need to have some skin in the game, too. In other words, Americans need to have faith in fellow Americans and in civil society to make this work. Ultimately, if you follow what Arizona has done, what Heritage has published and advocates for, the quick answer is yes.
Cordero: You've written before that parents are the sleeping giants who will mend our broken education system. What's your advice to a parent who isn't happy with what's going on in their child's school, but has no idea to start and they don't know what to do about it?
Roberts: Well, they need to take a few steps. The first is keep asking questions, and do so politely. I mean, most Americans are very polite, but we can be persistent and be polite. The reason I emphasize politeness even though it's a very serious matter is that, if we present ourselves in a way that could be misconstrued as misbehaving, then those who are opposed to school choice and, therefore, opposed to equality of opportunity, are going to use that against us. You just need to ask teachers and principals. Go to school board meetings. Those representatives on school boards, no disrespect to them, are no smarter than the average parent. The superintendent is no smarter, not being disrespectful to them either. They owe us as parents the answer to whatever question we ask.
Roberts: This is America. When, not if, when those questions are not answered and when, not if, those parents discover an utter lack of transparency, because we've created a system, we've not created an educational opportunity for kids, then parents need to consider being more active. They need to start parents' groups. Moms need to join Moms for Liberty, an allied, friendly organization of Heritage that started up from the grassroots. They need to be active on social media and, ultimately, for those who need to, they need to run for school board.
Roberts: This country and, therefore, our kids is going to be restored not because of Congress, not because of state legislatures, but because of school boards. We need thousands of Americans, like many Americans have already decided to do, to do something they never would've considered, which is to say, "On behalf of my child and on behalf of all American children especially those in my school district, I'm going to go represent them."
Cordero: Start getting more involved.
Roberts: We have to, and that's the lesson. I think now, many years of doing public policy, I hear, and I really do empathize with people who say this, I hear them say, "Oh, Kevin, I don't have time to do that. I can't go do what Heritage does and talk to members of Congress." Well, ultimately, the answer is you could do that. This is really simple. This is in your community. It's perhaps even in your ZIP code, and it is a great service to this country. I just want to guarantee that anyone who's listening to me say this or watching me say this, who's slightly inspired to go run for school board, but still has that doubt in the back of their mind that they're not good enough, they're smart, not smart enough, they haven't had the right experience, I guarantee you you're better than almost everyone on the school boards.
Cordero: All right. In conclusion, for something that sounds like it makes a lot of sense, I want to hit on the other side of the debate a little bit. Why are the left and teachers unions so against school choice?
Roberts: I think I can speak to that with some credibility because I'm a fifth-generation teacher. I've taught at every level. I love public schools. As we've talked about, I love private schools. I love homeschooling. In other words, I love freedom. Ultimately, therefore, I have to be blunt and say that the reason the radical left and the teachers unions and their allies in school districts have opposed school choices because it's all about power and money.
Roberts: I limit saying that because, in the United States, we like to ascribe great, noble motives to those, even those who disagree with us, but in this case, during my entire career as a college professor, college president, school founder, teacher and now policy leader, all I've seen that side do is give me excuse after excuse after excuse about why they need to build a system rather than why they need to be focused on every child.
Roberts: What I know from my experience in the classroom is that when teachers and, therefore, schools focus on the need of every single child, really good things happen. I also don't accept the ridiculous, absurd claim of the radical left that we aren't spending enough money. We're spending more money per student than any other country in the world. We have dramatically extended those expenditures over the last 50 years, and over 90% of those expenditures have gone to things that aren't directly related to students. Put that hogwash back in the closet and let's go save America by focusing on kids.
Cordero: Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this issue. We hope you'll come back and join Heritage Explains soon.
Roberts: My pleasure. Thanks.
Cordero: That's it for this week's episode of Heritage Explains. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Kevin Roberts. If you didn't know, he has his own podcast, The Kevin Roberts Show. It's definitely worth subscribing. His guest this week was Ted Cruz. Don't miss out. Thanks for listening, and Tim is up next week.