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Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s resounding victory in deep-blue Virginia sent shockwaves through the national Democratic Party apparatus. Youngkin took down former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, in an election that pitted two fundamentally different views of education against one another.
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Given the obvious popularity of the Youngkin position on education – one that puts power back into the hands of parents – lawmakers at the federal level should reconsider a Trump-era education bill that did not make it through Congress during President Trump’s time in the White House: the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, or “EFS.”
Advocating for EFS was one of Betsy DeVos’s top priorities while she served as President Trump’s secretary of education. In 2019, Sen. Ted Cruz , R-Texas, introduced the bill in the Senate, while Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., sponsored companion legislation in the House.
Passing EFS would allow taxpayers to obtain a tax credit for donations to certain scholarship-granting organizations for elementary and secondary school expenses, sparking a significant expansion in school choice across the United States. This year, Cruz reintroduced the bill this Congress, with Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, taking the lead this time in the House.
Perhaps McAuliffe’s most decisive gaffe during the campaign was when he said, in a debate with Youngkin, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Exit polls indicated that more than 80% of Virginia voters believed that “parents should have at least ‘some’ say in what their child’s school teaches.” A majority of voters took the position that parents should have “a lot” of say.
McAuliffe’s vulnerability on this issue arguably swung the election to Youngkin, who prevailed in a state that had voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by over 10 points just a year earlier.
Education policy preferences cut across ideological lines. In an increasingly polarized country, parents can all still agree on wanting what is best for their children. In many cases, that means “school choice,” or the ability for a parent to send his or her child to a better school up the road, whether private, religious or public charter. Some parents might even prefer to homeschool their children. But for many parents, the cost of switching out of the local public school might be prohibitively expensive. That is where school choice policy comes in.
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School choice is broadly popular. Various permutations of education freedom policy – educational savings accounts, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and public charter schools – poll above 70%. And nearly 20 states established or expanded school choice programs in 2021.
Maybe most worrisome for Democrats, a focus group of Virginia voters who supported President Biden in 2020 but flipped (or seriously considered flipping) to Youngkin in 2021 indicated that parental control of schools and COVID-related school shutdowns were big in the minds of those who swung to the Republicans.
Put simply, parents want education freedom. And Republicans have laid claim to the political “middle” on the issue.
While action in the states is important, Congress now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to supercharge school choice with a carefully crafted federal policy initiative. With parents still reeling from a year of school shutdowns, this is the moment for school choice at the national level. And the Education Freedom Scholarships bill is the perfect vehicle.
Instead of diverting money from public schools (a common criticism of ordinary school choice policies), EFS’s tax credit program would simply facilitate and encourage private donations to scholarship programs that ease the financial burden on parents who want to send their child to the school that is best for that child’s individual needs. Individual states would be able to participate on an opt-in basis, but would not be required to do so.
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If Democrats will not advance EFS in Congress, Republicans should continue to push the issue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Education freedom is a political winner, and after the results in Virginia, Republicans can feel confident about the political effectiveness of promoting policies like EFS at the national level.