Ideas to Impact Blog

The State of Educational Freedom in the United States

mother and daughter working on homework

After three decades of relatively few legislative wins, parental freedom in education is starting to achieve “escape velocity,” said Jay Greene, senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, at a recent panel discussion.

With six recent victories for universal education savings accounts (ESAs), the movement is seeing incredible national momentum, even across political boundaries. West Virginia, Iowa, Arizona, Utah, and Florida could, Dr. Greene expects, be joined by even more states by the end of 2023. What has changed?

After countless “Charlie Brown and the football” moments, parent-empowering legislation is beginning to stick, both due to what parents saw during the lockdowns and a fruitful change in strategy. Previous arguments used to center on two facts: choice and competition yield better student outcomes, and minorities are hardest hit by the present government monopoly on education. These were true, but largely ineffective at advancing policy. What is working now, Greene says, has been a shift toward focusing on middle-class concerns, primarily the failure of schools as revealed during the pandemic.

Parents want their values affirmed, or at least not attacked, in their kids’ schools. Although there is not yet unanimity in the parental choice movement on this strategy, it is working in red states, where there is greater openness to choice and where the dominos are already falling. Growing these systems rapidly will give these states a competitive advantage over blue states, which are already losing population to states with more robust economies and options for school.

Clemson University’s Brad Thompson changed his approach to parental choice advocacy twenty years ago, when he was inspired by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s moral arguments against slavery. Practical arguments may hold, but they don’t move people en masse. The task, according to Dr. Thompson, is to incite a moral and intellectual revolution against what government schools have done to young Americans for generations.

The single most important social movement in the United States, Thompson believes, has been the homeschool movement, which—after decades of slow growth—has exploded in the wake of the pandemic. Noting that many states have tried to regulate homeschooling into oblivion, their task is becoming more difficult now that parents have seen with their own eyes the horror of public school class content. And with new organizations leading the school board rebellion, he sees hope for a continued expansion of parental choice in education.

Dr. Thompson also discussed the recent stratospheric growth of the Lyceum Scholars Program he founded at Clemson University. Eight years after its founding, the program received 735 applications from students in all fifty states for ten scholarships for the 2022-2023 academic year. With an emphasis on moral character as vital to a free society, scholarship recipients now include Rhodes and Fulbright scholars, with several alumni continuing to PhD programs.