Cyber School School Choice

School choice is surging in popularity: 74% of parents with school-aged children want control over their children’s education dollars. Here in Texas, a majority from across the political spectrum is on board. Now that state legislators have convened for the 2023 session, it’s time to make school choice a priority.

Several lawmakers have already filed promising bills. For example, Senate Bill 176, introduced by Mayes Middleton (R-11), allows parents to use public funds on approved educational expenses, such as private school tuition, distance learning, and tutoring. Allowing funding to follow the student can make Texas a national leader in family empowerment and educational effectiveness.

We know school choice is a winner for parents and students from its popularity in other states. For example, Arizona recently implemented a program similar to that in Middleton’s bill. Parents were so eager to sign their kids up that they crashed the website. In the recent midterm elections, governors and state legislators who support school choice walloped those who were opposed. Texas officials who work against school choice are likely to face significant political costs.

School choice has been extensively studied by researchers. Giving students transferable funding allows them to pick the education option that’s best for them, raising test scores and improving parent satisfaction. But that’s not all. School choice also improves student achievement in existing district schools! When families can use public funds to pursue outside options, district schools have to up their game to retain students. Competition is a tide that lifts all boats. 

Defenders of the K-12 status quo sometimes claim school choice is bad for rural districts, which is frequently the largest regional employer. But in the very next breath, they claim school choice is unfair because rural students don’t have access to private schools and tutoring the way urban and suburban students do. These arguments can’t both be true. 

They can both be false, however – and they are. Rural students have many more schooling options than you’d think. School choice can help them find the one that’s right for them. At the same time, there’s no evidence school choice harms rural districts. Arizona shows the way: the state’s rural schools are rapidly improving at the same time its students have more choices than ever.

We can implement school choice in ways that ensure political buy-in. For example, we can structure the program such that residentially assigned districts can keep some public funds (say, 20%) to cover overhead and other fixed costs. That still leaves roughly $8,000 in transferable funding per student, on average. Private school tuition in Texas averages $10,000. The resources are there. Let’s put them in parents’ hands, where they can do the most good.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and students have learned the hard way that district-schools don’t always have their best interests at heart. It’s time we used public resources to fund students, not systems. School choice is the family-empowerment approach we need. Let’s tell state lawmakers to bring it home.

Alexander William Salter is an associate professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a community member of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal editorial board. The views in this column are solely his own.