- - Monday, May 1, 2023

Last month, I testified before a congressional subcommittee discussing the topic of “School Choice: Expanding Educational Freedom for All.” I reflected on my personal journey receiving a tax-credit scholarship from the sixth through 12th grade to attend a private school.

I urged members of Congress to support expanding school choice at the federal level. They have the opportunity to pass the Educational Choice for Children Act — a monumental bill that would create a $10 billion federal tax credit scholarship.

This provision would give roughly 2 million additional students across the country educational freedom. As a student who benefited from school choice in Florida, I know that this program, if passed, will change the trajectory of millions of students’ lives.

The committee’s work to improve K-12 education has always been guided by the belief that all children — regardless of where they come from or how much money their parents make — should receive an excellent education. Unfortunately, some schools are failing to provide students with that opportunity, and some state legislators would rather protect the status quo than honor the desires of their constituents.

At the hearing, I saw that both political parties agree our children deserve better, and they deserve the opportunity to receive a better education and pursue a better life. Everyone agreed that prioritizing K-12 education is important.

Unfortunately, the approach to fixing America’s education system continues to be divided along political lines. Elected officials in the Democratic Party believe that more money will help fix America’s poorest-performing schools. Just an hour away in Baltimore, however, we see that more money for district schools has not helped improve academic outcomes.

Meanwhile, the parents continue to vouch for school choice as a feasible alternative to improving schooling through competition and parental empowerment, even as Republicans in some states stand with the unions to block opportunity too.

It’s been seven years since my first appearance before Congress to discuss expanding education choice, and students’ lives are still a political football. Too many children are still being failed by the system. And too few elected leaders are willing to put families first.

At one point in the hearing, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, New York Democrat, asked those of us who testified if we supported the teachers union. A better question: When will the teachers union lose its grip over the Democratic Party? When will the left listen to its constituents and the public’s outcry for education freedom? When can we stand together to support and prioritize students over adults?

According to a national poll by RealClear Opinion Research, which surveyed more than 2,000 registered voters, the concept of school choice has overwhelming and bipartisan support, with 68% of Democrats and 70% of African Americans saying they support these policies.

Such support is well founded. Academic data for Florida’s private school choice program, the one I benefited from, shows that participants graduated from high school, went to college, and earned degrees at significantly higher rates than their peers in district schools.

School choice doesn’t just benefit students who leave district schools. A 2020 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program grew, district schools improved. As choice expanded, Black students who remain in Florida district schools are also making strong academic gains, both outpacing Black students nationally and narrowing achievement gaps with White students in Florida.

That’s why I was so disappointed when Rep. Jahana Hayes, Connecticut Democrat, dismissed my personal story — my lived experience — of the relief and joy of finding a school where teachers smiled at me, a simple act that may seem trivial, but for a child who hates school is profound.

As I testified, when attending the public schools in my neighborhood, I was saddled with low expectations. My family name was associated with dropouts, and many teachers sighed when I walked through the classroom door. This reality contributed to my inability to succeed. Changing schools changed my life.

I am not alone. In the 1990s, Florida’s graduation rate was 52% overall — and 42% for Black students. Now, it is 87% overall — and 82% for Black students. The same trends can be seen in national math and reading scores. In the 1990s, Black students in Florida were near the bottom relative to Black students in other states. Now in most categories, Black students in Florida are near the top.

The progress we have seen over the last 30 years, thanks to school choice, is remarkable, and every student deserves to access this kind of opportunity.

My experience is just one example of the transformative power of school choice. The sad reality is that students in many states will never access the type of life-changing opportunity I did unless Congress acts.

Home schools, private schools, charter schools, microschools, and even more innovative options are providing real hope to parents and children across the country. The benefits are evident. Families need them.

I encourage Congress to pass the Education Choice for Children Act to help more children receive the education they deserve.

• Denisha Allen is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, founder of Black Minds Matter, a board member at Step Up for Students, and a Florida tax-credit scholarship graduate.

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