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OPINION

‘School Choice’ and Homeschool Families Must Fight Together

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

President Reagan once famously quipped, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.” Indeed, those of us on the right are rightly skeptical of government schemes to inject its tentacles into private life, and some have raised good-faith questions about the risks of bringing “public funding” (and the strings attached to it) into private education. 

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But Reagan himself knew that empowering parents reduced the threat of government influence over our nation’s children, and he proposed in 1985 to allow parents to redirect up to $600 of what taxpayers would have otherwise spent via existing programs on a child in a public school and instead use it for that child’s private education. Just like today, Reagan’s faith in school choice programs horrified—and terrified—those on the left who believe our children should be molded chiefly by the state, not parents. 

For years since, a small portion of American families have been able to direct their own children’s education through values-based private school or by directly homeschooling their own kids. Some have done so with help from the current patchwork of school choice programs, and others by fully bearing the financial burden themselves. But now, states across the country stand poised to break down the financial barriers holding back millions of families from doing likewise, while also obliterating the current penalty levied against private and home-educating families who not only dutifully pay taxes to support other children, but then also bear the full financial burden again to provide for their own. 

Indeed, education savings account (ESA) programs are now blossoming in conservative friendly states such as Florida, Arizona, and West Virginia—even as union-backed leftists fight tooth and nail to suppress them in progressive bastions such as California, Illinois, and New York. 

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Some fear that accepting ESA funds will empower the left to hijack their control of their children’s education. This fear should not be taken lightly. But neither should it blind nor paralyze our judgment.

There is no doubt that with or without ESA legislation, parents and lawmakers will always have to remain vigilant to defend the integrity of private and home-based education. But as California has shown with the likes of its recently enacted legislation, SB 107—threatening the custody of any parent nationwide who does not support radical gender theory when it comes to their own children—families will never be “safe” from the ambitions of the left simply because they ask to be left alone. Indeed, the threat to families directing the upbringing of their children exists not because of programs like ESAs, but in spite of them. 

Indeed, it is tempting to some on our side to embrace the status quo out of concern that in the future, leftist lawmakers would try to burden ESA-type programs with damaging regulations. But that status quo means stranding more than 90% of our nation’s kids in a system where groups like the National Education Association (NEA) are actively seeking to inculcate the next generation in state-sponsored leftwing ideologies. This generational monopoly presents a far greater risk to the future of the nation and to the liberties of our children than a hypothetical battle down the line to preserve the victories we will have won for school choice and private education in the meantime. 

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The more families and schools that are involved in nonpublic education (which will be boosted significantly by programs like an ESA), the larger the constituency of voices to speak out and defend families against future attempts to undermine private or home-based learning.  Already, for instance, the hugely successful public Great Hearts charter network responded to Arizona’s ESA expansion by launching religiously affiliated “Christos” campuses.

We must not join with the unions and prematurely impose our own civilizational defeat. Rather, as homeschool parents themselves have written at length, we must re-center families and amplify the voice and power of parents who wish to educate their own children free of bureaucratic interference or undo financial strain. 

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as director of the institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.

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