Unbundle public schooling through direct funding, increased access
by Craig Hulse, first published in the Washington Times on October 3, 2023
2023 has been a banner year for education freedom, with nearly all families in nine states now empowered to direct education funding in a way that best meets their kids’ needs. These state laboratories of democracy are innovating, and voters are responding. With all this progress, it’s no surprise that Republicans are seen as more trustworthy than Democrats on education — a development that will have major implications for next year’s presidential election.
Given vast support for expanding educational freedom across the nation, Republican candidates would be smart to stoke this flame. But last week’s debate, as is often the case, was more about sound bites than real policy. Going forward, the candidates have an opportunity to present a bold, transformational vision for education that truly empowers families.
Not every candidate has proved his or her commitment to family empowerment. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has set the bar as the only one who has enacted legislation in his state to expand educational freedom. But this national moment gives other candidates the opportunity to illustrate a future where educational decisions are made by families.
What would this future look like? We must reaffirm what we mean by “public education.” It means curating educational experiences that best meet each student’s needs — regardless of where and how they take place. The traditional brick-and-mortar school building filled with rows of desks is an outdated idea.
GOP candidates can set themselves apart by championing this transformational vision, anchored with three specific policy principles to empower families:
First, empower families to direct funding. Every child is capable of amazing things, and each has goals, interests and abilities. Yet our education system is designed to push each child through a one-size-fits-all system.
Instead, parents and guardians should have the freedom to direct the funding meant for their children’s education, whether they choose a public school, private school, micro-school or home schooling. Nine states have already made important progress toward this, and it is popular among parents nationwide.
Second, increase public school access and flexibility. In the vast majority of communities, students may attend only the public school in their attendance zone — even if another public school nearby is a better fit.
Therefore, most public schools are accessible only to families that can afford to live in that neighborhood. Tuition by housing price isn’t very “public” at all. In 16 states, enrolling your student in a school outside your attendance zone is a crime.
In other contexts, this sort of system would be intolerable. Imagine if, on a hot summer day, you could be denied access to a public pool or park because you live in the wrong neighborhood. Or if you were injured and were turned away from a public hospital because you crossed a particular street to get there.
All families, regardless of their ZIP code, should be empowered to access the public school that is the best fit for their child.
Third, “unbundle” education. There’s been a lot of conversation in recent years about “unbundling” TV and internet packages. The principle is simple: Consumers should be able to pick and choose what channels and streaming services they want.
We should bring this idea to public education. Students should be able to enroll in their public school on a part-time basis if that’s their preference.
For example, let’s say home schooling is the best fit for a child overall, but they love playing football, or they need to take advanced calculus. That child should be able to enroll in their local public school just for football and calculus. After all, public schools are public institutions funded by taxpayer dollars. Why should students have to enroll full time to participate?
Americans largely agree; a January poll found that 86% of adults support empowering all children to attend the public school in their state that best meets their needs, no matter their ZIP code. Naturally, this principle should include students enrolling full time or on a flexible basis.
Candidates can unite the nation with a vision to promote freedom, empower families and improve public schools. On such a crowded debate stage, those who champion families will make a real impression on voters.
Craig Hulse is executive director of “yes. every kid,” an advocacy group using a family first approach to transform America’s educational policy landscape.