Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, presided over a hearing Tuesday in which witnesses appealed to the heart as well as the head in making a persuasive case for school choice and the Educational Choice Act for Children.
This latter is a bill, now before the House, that would amend the IRS code to allow tax credits for donations to create a national, $10 billion fund for private school scholarships for elementary and secondary school students. Supporters and opponents all agreed that the bill would provide a workaround on school choice for states in which the expansion of private options for children are stymied by local political forces.
Witnesses testified there is solid evidence school choice has positive effects on civic engagement, crime reduction, and student safety. Not only do students in school choice do better academically, but many studies show the competition provided by school choice has a beneficial effect on public school performance.
Protect The 1st supports school choice not just because of the demonstrated superiority of many private schools, but also because school choice enables parents to enjoy the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. It does this by allowing them to send their children to a school that reflects their heritage and foundational beliefs. In Tuesday’s hearing, it was noted that if all U.S. Catholic schools were a state, their 1.6 million students would rank first in the nation across the NAEP reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders.
But in this hearing, policy points were overwhelmed by personal stories and moral appeals.
“When a district school is failing or unsafe, school choice provides an exit option previously foreclosed to most families,” said Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. “But school choice is far more than an escape hatch; it is the mechanism that will create a rising tide that will lift all boats.”
Burke followed up on a comment made earlier by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) that money should follow students rather than schools. “Pell Grant recipients aren’t assigned to particular colleges,” she said. “Food stamp recipients aren’t assigned to the grocery store closest to their home. Yet in K-12 education, students are assigned to the district public school closest to where their parents can afford to buy a home, even if that school is a poor fit for that child.”
Asking why the future of children should be limited to their ZIP code, Rep. Burgess Owen (R-UT) said that school choice is “a civil rights issue.” He noted that 75 percent of African-American boys in California in 2017 could not pass standardized reading and writing tests. He said they are being denied the right to “read, write, think or dream.”
Rep. Owens added that “no one in this room would send their child to such [an underperforming] school,” but there is a lack empathy for families that currently have no other choice. And those that are trapped are, he said, predominately “Black, Hispanic, those who cannot defend themselves.”
Many persuasive witnesses spoke. But the show stealer was Denisha Allen of the American Federation for Children.
Growing up in a distressed neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, Allen said: “I failed third grade – twice – because I couldn’t read. I felt so insecure. I just knew I was stupid. I was regularly humiliated by my peers because I was two years older than my classmates. Teachers sighed when I walked through the door. Unsurprisingly, I hated school.”
“To me, school was not the window to opportunity but an obligation,” she said. “I thought school was a place I had to go so my biological mother would not go to jail – because that had happened before ... It seemed that my life path would follow in the same path as many of my family members, with dropping out or worse.”
In the summer of her sixth-grade year, Allen moved in with her godmother, who applied for a Florida tax-credit scholarship to enroll in a small private church school.
“I didn’t know my life was about to change. Every day at my new school, my teachers greeted me with a smile. I felt loved and seen,” she said.
“Because I didn’t read on grade level, teachers would meet with me one-on-one to help me. They saw potential in me that I never had. My confidence grew. They didn’t view me as a chore but as a child of God – as a student capable of learning.
“I went from making Ds and Fs, believing I would become a teen mom and a high-school dropout, to making As and Bs, becoming the first in my family to graduate from high school, then undergraduate college, and grad school – earning a master’s degree and going on to work full-time in this field to ensure that as many other students as possible get this incredible opportunity.
“I wasn’t a failure. The public school system had failed me. Imagine all the students today who are like I once was – the ones who are trapped in poor-performing schools, who don’t read on grade level, are destined to drop out of school, become a teen parent, or spend the rest of their life behind bars.
“Imagine telling those beautiful faces that there was a feasible alternative, that their liberation can come in the form of education freedom – but only if their state leaders prioritized students' needs above the systems that had failed them.
“Yet in many states, the opportunity for America’s students, including its 7.7 million Black public school students, to access these potentially life-changing learning options remains out of reach,” Allen said. “The sad reality is students in many states will never access this type of life-changing opportunity unless Congress acts. There are many proposals to provide more options to parents – like the Education Choice for Children Act – it would allow parents to have education freedom now more than ever.”
Watch the whole hearing here, with Denisha Allen at the 40-minute mark.