Opinion

How Right-Leaning Entrepreneurs Became the Champions of Equity for Low-Income Students

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Posted: Sep 18, 2021 12:01 AM
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How Right-Leaning Entrepreneurs Became the Champions of Equity for Low-Income Students

Source: AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File

There is no doubt that free-market enthusiasts—armed with a love of competition and individual liberty—have a successful track record of leading on traditionally progressive issues. When it became clear that the criminal justice system was in desperate need of reform, it was Republicans who led the way in dismantling the prison pipeline. Now, as the country looks towards the broken American education system, it’s once again capitalists who are looking to restore equity by introducing competition.

COVID-19 brought to light our broken public education system. Bureaucrats were in control of classrooms, students’ individual needs were going unmet, and families—minorities and low-income families, in particular—had little choice to remedy the problems.

 That’s where right leaning entrepreneurs and state leaders came onto the scene. In the past year, more than a dozen states have passed school choice policies that either create or expand education opportunities via tax credit scholarships or education savings accounts, ultimately driving competition between schools and increasing choice for families.

At the heart of these reforms is a desire to break up an antiquated system that segregates students based upon their zip code—a system where district schools are a de facto monopoly. Instead, these reforms put parents in control of their kids’ educational needs and set kids on a path towards a brighter future by expanding their opportunities. Research into the impact of expanded tax credit scholarships in Pennsylvania, for example, shows that students receiving scholarships are projected to earn $7.4 billion in higher lifetime earnings from increased academic achievement.  

We’re finally getting progressive about education—with free market reformers leading the way. Even the Washington Post, no friend of the Right, questioned why Democrats aren’t more supportive of the federally-backed District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which benefits thousands of low-income and minority students. 

 Nationwide, Democrats talk a good game about equality and equity while often doing nothing to disrupt the status quo. Worse, some are running from their once progressive views on education.

Consider Elizabeth Warren’s recent spar with billionaire entrepreneur, Ken Langone, on CNBC. The Home Depot founder and school choice advocate questioned why Senator Warren abandoned her own support for families having educational choice. In Warren’s book, “The Two Income Trap”, the Senator once called for vouchers so families could attend private school and advocated for ending zip code restrictions for those who remained in public school. But Warren has since changed her mind, claiming in the debate that vouchers should only be used within the public school system. 

Unlike Langone, who argued that the public education system desperately needs competition, Warren’s new “solution” refuses to acknowledge that the public school system is failing millions of students. And that’s not a solution at all. While public school alternatives exist, the reality is that they are only available to those with the means to buy into them.  

In the segment, it’s clear that the free-market champions, not the so-called progressives, are the unequivocal advocates for children. And Langone’s debate skills only highlighted the sad hypocrisy in the progressive movement on education: Democrats are all talk when it comes to equity in education.

But in the face of broken systems, there’s a history of right-learning entrepreneurs joining progressives in pursuit of true reform, not just talk. The issue of prison reform drew Jane Janeczek—a registered Democrat and the daughter of the late Democrat Governor George Leader—to the free-market organization I work for, the Commonwealth Foundation. And it brought lawmakers of both parties together in 2018 when they passed bipartisan criminal justice legislation. 

It’s time for progressives to join with capitalists again to reform another system that isn’t serving our most vulnerable. And it’s a simple venture: all students should have access to an education that encourages them to thrive. Our children—not our education system—are our greatest resource. It’s time lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree to invest in them.  

Jennifer Stefano is vice president and chief strategist for the Commonwealth Foundation. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. You can follow her on Twitter @JenniferStefano. 

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