School choice opponents typically have never needed or wanted an alternative to public schools. I should know: I was one of them.

As a former teacher, I unflinchingly championed public education.

But then Covid-19 happened. And like many other parents, I experienced our deeply flawed educational system firsthand.

My kids’ schools shuttered in 2020 and remained closed for in-person classes for the year — even after they had the green light to reopen. For much of that time, our public schools offered only remote learning — no in-person schooling, homework, classwork, or classmates.

Cameras during the school day were optional, meaning kids were logging in and tuning out. Our schools put accountability on hold. Meanwhile, children lost months and years of learning.

I wanted no part of that for my children.

However, my family scrambled to find an alternative. Our choices were few: force my kids to be on Zoom for six hours a day, transfer them all to a private school (which we couldn’t afford), or homeschool.

Suddenly, I found myself rethinking my unfailing commitment to public education. Were public schools superior to all other options? If they were, why were public schools closed when nearly all private schools in my area were open for in-person instruction? Why had I previously rolled my eyes when friends and family chose to homeschool their children or send them to private schools?

It was hard for me to argue that public schools serve all students when, in reality, they weren’t serving any. Statewide, parents had to juggle working and supervising remote schooling. In many cases, moms left the workforce to stay home with kids.

It’s been nearly four years since Pennsylvania public schools closed their doors. Since that time, two of my kids graduated from college, and two have moved on to college after graduating from homeschooling.

My youngest is contemplating his path for high school: deciding between his micro-school pod, applying to private school, or returning to public school. He is fortunate that he has options.

But many of his peers don’t have these options.

Nearly 250,000 kids in Pennsylvania remain trapped in chronically failing low-achieving public schools, which the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) defines as schools in the bottom fifteen percent based on statewide test scores.

What choices do these kids have? 

To be sure, public schools play an essential role in education.

However, data indicates that public schools aren’t working for many students. Among Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing high schools, fifteen have zero students performing math at grade level.

If given a choice, parents of children attending these schools would likely choose something better.

But choice often boils down to financial resources. Wealthy families can afford to live in the best school districts. Meanwhile, low-income parents must settle and send their children to the local public schools.

School choice empowers these families and students to shop around and find a better school.

For example, during the 2021–22 school year, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs provided more than $200 million in scholarships to about 77,000 Pennsylvania students.

Fortunately, Gov. Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania General Assembly added $150 million to EITC and OSTC, enabling more students and families to leverage these funds and find better educational alternatives.

But EITC and OSTC are just the beginning.

Lifeline Scholarships, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) program, would offer Educational Opportunity Accounts, ranging from $2,500 to $15,000 per year, for students in the commonwealth’s lowest-performing public schools.

Unfortunately, EITC, OSTC, and Lifeline Scholarships/PASS are considered “controversial.” Opponents of school choice—a position I once was sympathetic to—erroneously believe such programs harm public education. Opponents propagate myths, such as school choice segregating students and taking money away from public education.

Fortunately, not all Pennsylvanians believe these misconceptions. Instead, school choice is wildly popular among voters — 67 percent of whom support Lifeline Scholarships/PASS.

Lawmakers should take note: School choice is not only politically expedient but, moreover, morally right.

How much longer will the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Shapiro wait to offer a lifeline to our commonwealth’s most vulnerable children?

Rachel Langan is an Education Policy Analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.

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