- Mississippi could soon find itself surrounded on all sides by states that have embraced broad education freedom for students.
You have probably heard a lot of talk recently about school choice, parent choice, and education freedom. While there are some slight differences between those terms that I will not belabor here, the concept is largely the same: provide parents, particularly those who are low-income, the resources and freedom to select the best education options for their children.
States across the country are moving rapidly to do just that. More than 30 states now have a private education choice program, 10 of which allow virtually every student in the state to participate. This includes states like Florida and North Carolina, which are top 5 states in net migration according to the National Association of Realtors. Also included are states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arkansas, all of which are top 15 states for net migration according to the same report.
Mississippi may soon be surrounded by states that are empowering parents with more education options. Arkansas kicked off this trend last year, passing a sweeping education reform bill that included a universal private school choice program. Last November, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced his plan to make all Tennessee students eligible for a similar program in the Volunteer State they are calling Education Freedom Scholarships. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has committed to making Alabama “the most school choice friendly state in the nation” and just this month rolled out a robust school choice plan that she has touted as her top legislative priority. The election of Jeff Landry as Governor in Louisiana strongly suggests the Pelican State will also adopt more expansive school choice policies in the very near future.
Mississippi led the way nearly a decade ago in enacting conservative education policies that have resulted in some incredible achievements, many of which have been heralded nationally. The “Mississippi Miracle” is real, and students, teachers, parents, and policymakers should be credited for these accomplishments. But we should not rest on our laurels. It is time to build on this positive momentum to remain competitive with neighboring states.
The best next step to improve education in Mississippi is to give parents and families more education options, and if we do not act quickly, we may soon find ourselves left behind as other states pass and implement broad school choice policies at lightning speed.
Interestingly, school choice is also becoming a sort of litmus test for Republican politicians. Both state and national polling consistently show Republican and conservative support of the policy is particularly high, and the national Republican Party Platform is supportive of school choice (as is the Mississippi Republican Party platform). Polling conducted in Mississippi last year showed 72% of Republicans and 74% of conservatives support Mississippi passing a law similar to Arkansas’, which would give all parents in the state the opportunity to receive a portion of their child’s state education funding to spend on private school tuition or homeschool costs.
It was once said that supporting school choice would get your picture taken off the wall at the Capitol, implying that support for school choice could get a lawmaker beat in the next election. But it appears that in today’s political environment, with parents rising up and demanding education options, the opposite may soon be true. I for one do not believe you can call yourself a conservative and oppose these important reforms, even if you disagree with how best to implement them.
Despite the perception that school choice is a “Republican issue,” the policy actually enjoys strong bipartisan support. The same polling referenced earlier shows 60% of registered voters support that same Arkansas-style model, and polling by EdChoice shows that 67% of adult Mississippians support ESAs. North Carolina, whose Governor is a Democrat, recently passed a universal private education choice program, and Democrat cities and states have supported school choice programs for decades. We consistently see that support for these programs crosses both racial and political party lines, and I believe all lawmakers can and should support giving parents and students more education options.
The time is now for Mississippi to capitalize on this regional and national momentum. When we proposed the 2013 Education Works reforms, many establishment politicians pushed for more incremental change, hoping to check a political box with a slight and easy reform before moving on to the next issue. Instead, Mississippi’s leaders at the time opted for bold and transformational reforms that have dramatically improved education in Mississippi. Now is not the time for box-checking or incremental reforms that provide political cover but do little to affect outcomes. If Mississippi is to continue our miracle in education, we need today’s leaders to enact similarly bold and comprehensive reforms, empowering all Mississippians to choose the best educational choice for their children.
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