Increasingly over the past three years, public schools and the students who attend them have become collateral damage to a culture war that has overtaken American communities.
The latest example comes from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where hundreds of high school students walked out of their classrooms, protesting a school district decision not to enforce a ban on gender-inclusive bathrooms.
The Perkiomen Valley School Board voted down Proposed Policy 720, which would have required students to use bathrooms that corresponded with their biological sex, effectively banning transgender students from using their preferred bathroom.
READ MORE — Jabari K. Jones: It’s time to give West Philadelphia families a choice
The proposal followed a social media post by Tim Jagger, a local father whose daughter now feels unsafe, nervous, and without privacy using school facilities after encountering somebody she believed to be a boy in the girls’ bathroom.
“The fact of the matter is, my daughter will go to school and not use a restroom here now,” Jagger told the school district board.
Jagger’s concerns echo those of parents nationwide.
For example, in 2021, parents from Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools district demanded justice when two high school students fell victim to sexual assaults. The tragic events spurred the parents’ rights movement that propelled Gov. Glenn Youngkin into not only the governor’s mansion but also the national spotlight in the same year.
The focus on the culture war often leads pundits to ignore the elephant in the room: Students should feel safe at school. That’s something we should all agree on.
But kids haven’t been safe for a long time. Millions experience daily violence in their schools.
Take Philadelphia, for example. Philadelphia students who attend one of the city’s 135 “low achieving” district schools are collectively twice as likely to experience violence — including assaults, threats, weapon possession, theft, and fighting — than their counterparts in higher-achieving schools, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data.
Educational freedom empowers students and families to opt out of the culture war and school violence.
We should, of course, be concerned about high absentee rates — particularly in schools that predominately serve minority, low-income students — and their impact on proficiency and learning.
But these students — whether staging a walkout or simply skipping school — are doing what we all should do when faced with an institution that doesn’t share our values or concerns: We should vote with our feet. The power of exit is a subtle yet potent message that champions choice.
The freedom to choose drives creativity, innovation, and change. However, this freedom eludes parents and students in the classroom. When students feel unsafe in school, most only have one choice: endure. If their parents cannot afford to send them to private school, these students can either settle for their local public school or enter the state-run lottery system to possibly attend a charter school. Either way, the choice is limited.
Safety and education shouldn’t depend on the luck of the draw, whether it is a state-run lottery or birth into a wealthy family. But in many states, they are.
Pennsylvania lags in educational freedom. The state’s two tax credit scholarships, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs, award about $190 million to 63,000 students annually. The Pennsylvania Senate recently passed legislation adding $150 million to these programs — a good start, but one that leaves hundreds of thousands of vulnerable students behind.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are currently embroiled in a partisan budget spat over a $100 million school choice initiative. Lifeline Scholarships, known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS), would offer Education Opportunity Accounts to students in the state’s worst-performing schools to attend private schools. Gov. Josh Shapiro supported the initiative — a rarity these days with public unions spending millions to elect Democrats like Shapiro — before caving to the pressure and line-item vetoing it in the general appropriations budget.
Pennsylvania can still put kids above partisan nonsense as Shapiro and lawmakers work to finalize the 2023–24 state budget.
Educational freedom empowers students and families to opt out of the culture war and school violence and find an educational setting that fits their needs. Pennsylvania and every other state need more of this.
Rachel Langan is an Education Policy Analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.