Op-ed: School choice has momentum in Mississippi

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Political change unfolds in three stages. First, when a new idea comes along, they will say such reform is unthinkable.

Then as the idea starts to take hold, opponents admit that it might be a good idea after all, but it is unfortunately impractical. Finally, at the third stage, they will tell you it was their idea.

School choice, the idea that we give families control over their child’s education tax dollars, is no longer unthinkable. Several states, including our neighbor, Arkansas give each child an Education Freedom Account, into which the state pays about $8,000 to 10,000 each year.

Mom and Dad can then allocate that money to either a public, private or church school of their choice. They are even allowed to use the funds to home-school their kids. School choice is now a reality in half a dozen states across America.

Why don’t we do something similar in Mississippi?

Those opposed to putting parents in control in our own state have switched from principled objections to the more practical excuses.

For example, a recent article in Mississippi Today asserted that the Mississippi Constitution precluded school choice, citing section 208 and referencing a case currently before the state Supreme Court.

During COVID-19, the Mississippi legislature authorized a state agency to distribute about $10 million of federal COVID relief funds to private schools for infrastructure improvements. The decision has been challenged by an activist group that argues that Section 208 made such payments unconstitutional.

Even if our state Supreme Court ruled that providing $10 million in federal relief funds to private schools was unconstitutional, that decision would not prevent Mississippi from enacting school choice programs, including those available to families using non-public schools.

The Mississippi Constitution only prohibits appropriating state education dollars for institutional aid to non-public schools. It does not prevent the state from providing individual aid to students who choose to use those funds for tuition at non-public schools. Indeed, to avoid future confusion on that point, our legal division, the Mississippi Justice Institute, asked the Court to explicitly say so in its ruling.

A second practical objection we are starting to hear is that school choice will not work in rural areas with only one available local school.

Surely a lack of options is a reason to extend choice, not to limit it? If there is only a single school available, all the more important that we allow families to use some of their children’s tax dollars to pay for additional tutoring or some alternative lessons, on top.

Others object to school choice because it would defund public education. Allowing families to choose their grocery store does not ‘defund’ Walmart. Allowing families to choose their school does not ‘defund’ public schools.

Since when did those tax dollars belong to the school board bureaucracy? Our tax dollars are there to educate our children. School choice would allow every family to choose what is best for their children.

When opponents of parent power claim that giving families control over the money would mean less money for school board bureaucrats, they are making an important admission. They are acknowledging that if they were able to, some families would chose something different.

Over the coming months, we will hear practical excuses advanced against parental power. Do not be discouraged. Those citing practical objections against parent power are doing so because they have had to abandon any principled opposition. Once that process begins, the case against school choice begins to crumble. Momentum for change will only grow.

Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

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