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Happy National School Choice Week!

“And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is music to the ears of advocates for federalism, school choice, and, frankly, for student success everywhere. These words came directly from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week at a conference in DC titled “Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned,” held by the free-enterprise think tank American Enterprise Institute.

DeVos, who was invited to speak to the audience gathered for the conference, has long been a voice for ending the massive overreach of the federal government into our nation’s schools, that has been so detrimental to educational opportunity. Much of the failure of education policy in this time came from the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, combined with the later Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2010.

DeVos’ sentiment against federal government overreach into the education sector last week in reference to the failed Common Core initiative carries into this week, as we celebrate National School Choice Week, and work to localize and customize education, and expand educational opportunity. These sentiments must be turned into action if we are to return control of public education to the states and localities where it belongs, as well as return choice to parents of students, instead of continue allowing the government to dictate education.

Across America, students are wonderfully diverse and unique. With this comes individual needs, and inevitably, some types of education work better for some students than for others. It is critical to ensuring that every student receives an education that suits his or her needs, without breaking the bank of his or her parents. Opportunities to do so through federal policy as well as state policy are significant with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as an administration supportive of school choice.

The enactment of H.R. 1, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, at the end of last year included a provision that represents a significant win for school choice, pertaining to 529 plans. 529 plans, authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, allow parents to save their own money in tax-advantaged accounts that encourage saving for their students’ education. Previously only eligible for higher education, H.R. 1 included an amendment for the expansion of these funds to be used for private K-12 education, due largely to the efforts of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

This expansion makes it incredibly more feasible for parents to save money in order to choose a K-12 education that suits their student’s needs. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led an effort that resulted in the provision allowing 529 plans to also be used for homeschooling expenses being stricken from the text on a Senate rule technicality. This is an unfortunate loss, but allies of school choice in the House and Senate are working on standalone bills that would bring this fix into the tax code.

In a similar vein to 529 plans, education savings accounts are flexible accounts that allow parents to use saved money to pay for an education of their choice for their child. These accounts, however, are set up using state and local funds that would have been used on students’ public schooling, much of which parents pay into via taxes. These have already been set up several states, including Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and typically for the purpose of providing educational alternatives for students with special needs.

A commonsense expansion of these accounts would be to broaden eligibility beyond special needs students to any student whose parents choose not to enroll him or her in public school. By allowing parents who choose not to enroll their student in public school to receive much of the state and local funds that would have been used on their student in public schools, parents are given increased autonomy over their student’s education.

National School Choice Week is the perfect time to reflect on the successes of school choice and limiting federal reach into the education sector, and look ahead to opportunities for the same this year. Between the support of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to get the federal government out of the business of states and localities’ decisions on public education, the efforts of dedicated representatives and senators in expanding opportunities for school choice in areas in which federal policy is appropriate, and the successes of states already supportive of school choice, the prospects on educational freedom are significant and certainly very exciting.

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