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Arif Panju & Daryl James Opinion: Let Parents Opt Out of Low-performing Schools

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Single mom Shinara Morrison discovered homeschooling by accident. When public schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she found herself taking the lead on her child’s education to fill the gap.

Morrison never withdrew her son, who was 7, from the public school system. But she supplemented his online instruction with custom coursework that blended academics and life skills. Morrison had no formal training as an educator, but she had special insight as a mother.

“I had a little cheat sheet in my head,” she says. “I knew his learning style.”

By the time her son returned to part-time instruction on campus, he had jumped ahead of grade level. His teachers praised Morrison for her diligence, and she felt supported — like she was part of a team. That changed when she moved from North Carolina to Port Arthur, Texas, in summer 2021.

Morrison says her son’s new school resented her involvement, and acted more like an adversary than an ally. The school withheld information about classroom activities and blocked Morrison from having lunch with her son in the cafeteria — something she had done occasionally in North Carolina when her son needed emotional support.

“It got me worried,” Morrison says. “I wondered, ‘What’s going on behind these walls?’”

She says her son soon dreaded going to school, and his performance dropped. Morrison tried a charter school and then gave the local school district a second chance. But nothing worked. “Once we stepped foot in Texas,” she says, “my son’s education began to decline.”

Morrison sees homeschooling as her only option in fall 2023. The challenge is the cost. Even with the built-in economies of scale that Texas public schools enjoy, they spent more than $10,000 per pupil in 2017-2018. Texas private school tuition is about the same, although families must pay on top of taxes — creating a double financial burden. Homeschooling families also pay taxes, supporting the schools they quit, while funding their own curricula and covering other costs.

Morrison has one advantage. As an entrepreneur who sells wearable art, custom clothing and nail technician services, she has flexibility to work from home. But she worries about other families across the state, trapped in schools that do not meet their needs.

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“For my kid I would do anything,” Morrison says. “But many families cannot afford anything different.”

State lawmakers have a way to help. Texas Senate Bill 8 and other proposals would authorize education savings accounts for K-12 education. Participating families could withdraw their children from public schools and receive up to $8,000 to offset private and homeschool costs. Priority placement would go to applicants from low-performing schools.

Taxpayers would not see a difference. The proposed education savings accounts would rely on existing general revenue funds and donations, and not funding dedicated to public schools. The only change would be a shift in power toward Texas parents.

Teachers unions, which currently enjoy a monopoly on public education, would lose their captive audiences — primarily working-class families too poor to opt out of the system. Predictably, teachers unions hate the idea.

They raise concerns about the use of public funds for private schools — including parochial schools — at the expense of public schools. “This is an attack on public education,” says Noel Candelaria, former president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

The opposite is true. Increased competition would improve public education the same way competition improves sports, science and business. Competition on a level playing field keeps everyone sharp and drives innovation.

Competition also drives accountability. Critics complain that education savings accounts would funnel cash to private schools without rigorous government oversight. Yet no government official would direct the money to any private institution. Parents would call the shots. If they are unhappy with the service they receive, they can walk away.

This is the highest form of accountability: Real costs for low performance.

Florida, Arizona and 10 other states already have adopted education savings accounts with good results. And a majority of states empower parents with other forms of educational choice programs. Now Texas has a chance to join the movement. The ultimate winners would be schoolchildren like Morrison’s son.

Arif Panju is a managing attorney at the Institute for Justice in Austin. Daryl James is an Institute for Justice write in Arlington, Va. This article was originally published by RealClearPolicy and made available via RealClearWire.

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