Pro-Choice – For Education

by Ken Gorrell

This is tough for a curmudgeon like me to admit, but I got misty-eyed last week. I tried to remain dry-eyed and dispassionate – they weren’t talking about my kids, after all – but as I listened to parents tell of their struggles and sacrifices as they worked to find the right educational opportunity for their children, emotions began to overwhelm.
I was one of 150 or so participants in one of the 60 events in the state supporting National School Choice Week (January 25th – 31st). Across the nation there were more than 11,000 such events, bringing together parents, students, teachers, politicians, and choice supporters in the common cause of helping to make a good education possible for all children, one child at time. This event was sponsored by the Network for Educational Opportunity, a 501c3 non-profit scholarship organization. (Full disclosure: I am a member of NEO’s advisory board, though I had no part in organizing this event.)
Too often we hear the phrase, “For the children,” as if kids were just some homogeneous mass with common needs, interests, and goals. It’s a phrase that dehumanizes the most vulnerable members of our society, members who depend upon adults to give them a voice in the political process. While some adults choose to subsume a child’s interests to the needs of a well-organized, politically-connected machine, what I saw and heard last Friday were the stories of children being elevated to the status of individual. These parents and advocates weren’t acting “for the children”; they were acting on behalf of the best interests of this child and that child. Their stories were moving.
A single mother told of the difficulties her daughter faced in the school assigned to them by Zip Code. The tyranny of geography dictated which public school she had to attend, but that school wasn’t able to meet her needs. A father – formerly a public school educator – related how his son became demoralized at his assigned school and how his daughter’s dyslexia drove them to find a charter school for both children. Another mother told of her family’s sacrifice for their children’s education – they sold their house and became renters to afford a private school.
We viewed the Cato Institute-produced video Live Free and Learn, Scholarship Tax Credits in New Hampshire (available on YouTube) where other parents told the stories of their children, of individual sacrifice, of financial and academic challenges, each one unique. What wasn’t unique – was ubiquitous, in fact – was the word “choice.” It’s a simple enough concept, and something we demand every day as consumers. But unless you are a family of some means, it’s a concept that doesn’t apply to that most important of goals: educating your child.
The Network for Educational Opportunity is dedicated to correcting that flaw in our education system by using our education tax credit program to put privately-donated money into the hands of lower-income families, giving them the same options as economically-privileged families. The money comes from businesses (which can take a credit against state and federal taxes) and individuals (who can take a charitable contribution deduction on federal income taxes) and goes to families earning less than 300% of the federal poverty level. The program is revenue-neutral to the state. Surprisingly, some people object to this program.
Objections come in many forms, but at base rely on a belief that there’s nothing wrong with assigning children to schools based entirely on geography and that the public school system, despite its many documented shortcomings, must be protected from competition. Not only are these objections elitist (no objector has advocated that all children, regardless of a family’s ability to pay, must attend their local public school) , they fly in the face of dozens of studies showing that children do better when properly matched to a particular educational program.
Objectors (can we call them “deniers”?) also ignore the growing body of evidence that public schools benefit from competition. Some opponents of school choice and our education tax credit program would deny to lower-income parents something they did for their own children. I consider such people the worst of citizens not currently behind bars.
Ah, there’s the curmudgeon coming out. But looking back on National School Choice Week it’s hard not to be inspired and uplifted. The sacrifices of parents, the triumphs of individual children, the foresight and generosity of donors, the tireless work of advocates who make possible the scholarship program – it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Ken can be reached at kengorrell@gmail.com

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