Opinion

The Crucial Issue of School Choice Is On the Ballot This Election

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Posted: Sep 17, 2020 1:32 PM
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The Crucial Issue of School Choice Is On the Ballot This Election

Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Catholic parochial schools have long been lifelines for underprivileged and immigrant children. So, going to the polls this November, Americans who appreciate the enormous individual and societal benefits provided by Catholic parochial schools should take note of where the candidates stand on the crucial issue of school choice.   

As it turns out, the difference between political parties and presidential candidates is stark.  

On one side we have Joe Biden. The powerful teachers' unions have endorsed him because they feel confident he will continue to support a monolithic public school system that has underperformed for millions and contributed heavily to the racial disparities that fuel current urban unrest. The unions incessantly call for more “investment” into schools that have failed – failed not for lack of funds but from an institutional culture that is broken.   

Instead of supporting educational diversity and pluralism, as well as families who can’t afford to pay private school tuition or move to better school districts, the unions want to shut down initiatives like vouchers and education savings accounts. Nowhere in the Biden campaign’s “Unity Platform” do the words “school choice” appear, but it’s even worse than that. The document calls for ending the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program, in which about 80 percent of participating children are black, allows the use of school vouchers at private schools. The campaign recently issued a statement saying “Joe Biden opposes the Trump/DeVos conception of ‘school choice’ which is private school vouchers.”   

On the other side of the issue is President Trump. The first night of the Republican National Convention showcased a California public school teacher who pointed out that union efforts to stop school choice are responsible for “trapping so many precious, low-income children in dangerous, corrupt and low-performing schools.” And, as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said about his own difficult childhood, “I realized a quality education is the closest thing to magic in America. That’s why I fight this day for school choice.”   

This explains why Trump’s second-term agenda promises to “Provide School Choice to Every Child in America.” It’s a promise built on past performance. In 2017, the Trump administration expanded tax-deferred 529 education savings accounts so they can be used for parochial schools. This year, the president insisted, over the objections of teacher unions and congressional Democrats, that Catholic and other private schools be eligible for Covid-19 aid.   

The ability of many poor and minority children to access the “magic” of quality education hangs in the balance and having a president who does not kowtow to the teachers' unions may make all the difference. While unions claim that many public schools fail because they lack funding and their students are disproportionately disadvantaged, their numbers don’t add up. About 1.8 million children attend Catholic schools, 40 percent of them next to failing urban public schools, and just as racially and socio-economically diverse. In fact, minority children make up over 20 percent of the parochial school population, and many are recent immigrants with English as a second language. Catholic schools close the achievement gap for these students, achieving a 99 percent graduation rate. Eighty-six percent of their graduates go to college.   

These results significantly outshine government schools’. As for funding, average per pupil spending in public school is $12,240. Catholic schools spend an average of $7,743 per student. In short, Catholic schools provide a vital public service – delivering a quality education to our neediest children – at a fraction of the cost of their public school counterparts. This adds up to $24 billion a year in savings to taxpayers.   

Happily for President Trump, school choice not only remedies the grave inequality in American education, it’s also popular. A recent survey found that 78 percent of Republicans and Democrats favor education savings accounts, and a full 59 percent of Democrats favor school vouchers. Indeed, 72 percent of black and Hispanic parents do as well. For them, the failing of public schools is up close and personal. Their kids’ futures – and in a very real sense, our country’s future – may very well hang in the balance.

The 2020 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have dealt a mortal blow to countless businesses and institutions across the country – schools are no exception. As the new school year begins (sort of), it’s worth noting that many beloved Catholic parochial schools have been shuttered. Gone after surviving world wars, great depressions, and recessions. The fate of many of the remaining Catholic schools may depend whether the person in power for the next four years favors school choice - or not.  

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association and co-host of the syndicated radio show Conversations with Consequences.