On Thursday, the Texas Senate passed a bill to create a new education savings account program to give parents direct control of $8,000 of public school funding to direct their children’s education. The measure, which is backed by Governor Greg Abbott, now moves to the state House.
But a Texas state senator offered a surprising reason to oppose the legislation. Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat who represents north Houston, argued that many parents don’t have the skills to access the proposed program: “Surely, you understand we have constituents that are not familiar with websites, the internet or how to seek information online. Surely, you understand, we're dealing with folks that just don't have that skill,” Sen. Whitmire stated.
This is a condescending assumption. All parents, even those from less educated or lower-income households, want the best for their children. History has shown that lower-income parents have sought out and used school choice programs when they’ve been made available, even paying out of pocket if necessary for their children’s tuition to give them a chance at a better future.
The good news is that technology now exists that makes it easier for parents to search for new schools and find the best learning environment for their children. FAI’s co-founder Aaron Ginn and Grant Coates, CEO of the Miles Foundation, described in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram how Schoolahoop was created to help parents make choices in education:
Launched in 2019 as a partnership between our organizations, Schoolahoop instantaneously shows parents a dashboard of school options based on their location and a child’s specific needs. Parents can select the type of school and learning environment they prefer for their child, and by typing in their address, they can search for schools and educational opportunities in their local community. The service can even help provide options along their commute to work, given that transportation and time are two of the biggest challenges families said they face when thinking about a school for their child. Schoolahoop matches parents with public charter schools, virtual schools, private schools, microschools and other options. It’s a free service funded by charitable contributions, and the service doesn’t collect parents’ or students’ data or use advertising to prioritize schooling options. The search engine is based solely on parents’ expressed preferences.
In other words, if Texas gives parents new options for choosing their children’s school, Schoolahoop will already be there to help parents search for and find schools, as well as participate in new school choice programs (including by searching for available scholarships or similar options). And if parents actually are unable to use the internet, as Senator Whitmire assumes, nonprofit organizations such as Families Empowered exist to provide services to help families find the right school for their children.
To build on this momentum, the Department of Education should leverage its research and development capabilities to better understand how parents learn about and access education choice programs. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics regularly collects data and surveys parents and schools about K-12 education. The annual Digest of Education Statistics publishes extensive data, including about “homeschooling and school choice,” to help researchers, policymakers, and the public better understand K-12 education. NCES’s “school pulse panel” conducts monthly surveys about K-12 education. The Department of Education reports that “beginning in the 2023-24 school year, SPP is expanding to collect data on a range of topics that have relevance for federal policymakers, stakeholders within the U.S. Department of Education, public school leaders across the country, and the general public.”
Nineteen states have created or expanded new school choice options. Thirteen states now have education savings account programs that allow parents to directly control education funding to provide the best learning options for their children.
The Department of Education should provide valuable information about how parents are using these new choice options and help policymakers and civil society better understand what resources, if any, parents need to use their new power to provide their children with the best education possible. In addition, NCES should collect more information about what real barriers parents face to find the right school for their children—including residential assignment in public schooling and the lingering effects of “racist 1930s housing policies” in K-12 education.
But states don’t need to wait for new information from Washington. Lawmakers should be confident that parents can make good decisions for their children’s education and deserve that power.