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Latest School Closures Make The Case For School Choice

Earlier this week, more than ten school districts around New Mexico, including Santa Fe Public Schools, have returned to remote learning.

These closures follow trends in blue-state urban centers like Chicago where the Chicago Teachers Union announced a remote work action following winter break.

While the union’s actions amounted to a legally questionable strike, 63% of the union’s membership voted to suspend the remote work action and return to the classroom. The same cannot be said for some classrooms in New Mexico.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Larry Chavez announced that his schools would be returning to remote learning. The district would then go back to in-person learning later if “conditions improve,” which leaves open the possibility of an extended closure.

Union actions can certainly be blamed for Chicago’s classroom-learning prohibition, but different circumstances compelled New Mexico’s education leadership to bar students from classrooms. Technicalities aside, these two scenarios both illustrate the national educational crisis, where the special interests of teachers unions have been at odds with the interests of parents and students since early 2020.

In response to government mismanagement of schools during the epidemic, many states have deployed comprehensive school choice reform, such as West Virginia which now boasts the most freedom-centric educational choice program in the country. In the “mountain state”, K-12 students and their families have a number of school choice options, from education savings accounts to homeschooling and intra-district and inter-district public school choice via open enrollment.

Education savings accounts, like the ones in West Virginia, allow families to use program funds to send their children to private schools or customize an education plan to fit their needs. With ESAs, the funds follow students, whereas funds usually follow districts and institutions. It’s like the Pell Grant for college students: the money goes to the student, who then uses those funds at the school of their choice.

If the Pell Grant example is not enough, why not talk about food stamps? Government rules do not force families to use food stamps exclusively at WalMart. Families are free to choose where to spend those benefits. Schools should not be any different.

Throughout the country over the last two years, bureaucratic decision making forced schools to pivot to virtual learning in an effort to curb the spread, but research now shows how remote learning hurts students’ academic performance. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research highlights the negative impacts, finding that “pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in person instruction”.

Burbio tracked school openings across the country, noting pandemic related school disruptions, which are defined as a school moving away from regular in-person instruction caused in some way by the pandemic. This tracking shows that New Mexico students lost more time in the classroom due to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s policies than all but five other states.

The education crisis has exacerbated New Mexico’s education deficit. Even before the pandemic, New Mexico’s education outcomes were dismal. US News ranked the state as 50th in education. The land of enchantment has likely solidified its position in last place for the foreseeable future unless something dramatic changes.

That change could come in the form of comprehensive school choice programs.

School choice, regardless of the funding mechanism, gives power back to parents. When parents are given the ability to choose which school their children go to, the power is redirected away from special interests and back to families who truly have the best interests of children at heart.

Rather than taking money away from students and families to give to bloated public school districts, that money should be given back to families. School choice doesn’t defund public schools: public schools defund families.

The great thing about school choice is that public schools improve, too. When public schools have their bottom line threatened with competition, they immediately work to improve educational outcomes. These institutions find ways to be more efficient with their budget, delivering more funding to the classroom instead of to bloated bureaucracies.

Most importantly, school choice would ensure that schools stay open and deliver instruction to students in person, where it will do the most good. When exposed to parents who have alternatives, the market would not tolerate school closures.

Every state needs to introduce legislation that allows eligible families to move their children to the education of their choice empowering parents to choose what’s best for their children. Fund students and families, not systems.

By Patrick M. Brenner

Patrick Brenner is the founder and president of the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a limited-government research institute and think tank focused on the southwestern United States. An advocate for open government, he leads the institute's government transparency and accountability efforts.

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