March 29, 2023

U.S. taxpayers, especially those with school-age children, have every reason to think, “We’ve been robbed.”

According to Melanie Hanson at the Education Data Initiative, federal, state, and local governments provided an average of $15,120 in funding for every student in kindergarten through grade 12 during the 2018–2019 school year, the latest for which data are available — nearly $765 billion in total. Funding in several states and the District of Columbia exceeded $20,000 per pupil.

And what have parents and taxpayers received in return? In many cases, failure and disappointment, as the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math tests, the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” reconfirmed. The results, released in late October, showed that some two-thirds or more of the nearly 500,000 fourth- and eighth-grade students tested could neither read nor do math at a level considered “proficient.”

Even U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, an apologist for the education establishment and teachers unions, described the scores as “appalling” and “unacceptable.” I was more diplomatic, characterizing them as evidence of “academic malnourishment,” though academic malpractice may have been more appropriate.

Either way, the tests certainly provided further evidence that business as usual is a formula for continued failure.

Always ready to parrot the excuses provided by establishment education organizations and teachers unions, many government officials and pundits blamed the failure on pandemic-related “learning loss.” But that doesn’t explain the appalling and unacceptable scores “achieved” (if that’s an appropriate word) by fourth- and eighth-grade students who took the tests in 2019, 2017, 2015, 2013, and prior years. Their results weren’t much better. What was the excuse then — pre-pandemic learning loss?

Small wonder parents around the country have been up in arms about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms — because it clearly hasn’t been learning.

For nearly 25 years, ever since 1999, when we published the first edition of the Parent Power newsletter to guide parents and, in subsequent years, the online Parent Power Index, we’ve been making the case that parents need to demand more say in their children’s education and that wise policymakers would support their efforts. The index provides a snapshot of these efforts, ranking the states and the District of Columbia on the degree to which they permit parents to make critical decisions affecting their children’s schooling.

As the new 2022 Parent Power Index shows, there’s been considerable progress over the past two decades, but many states still have a long way to go. Florida again leads the way — followed by Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Minnesota, the District of Columbia, Colorado, and Utah.

What factors does the index consider? Most of all, concrete commitments to the following:

  • Choice programs: whether publicly supported choice programs, such as scholarships, vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts are available, allowing parents to choose the educational options best suited to the needs of their children;
  • Charter schools: whether charter schools are being encouraged to expand and flourish, are provided maximum autonomy to thrive, and are being equitably supported;
  • Innovation: whether the state is a leader in providing the flexibility for educators to take advantage of personalized, blended, project-based, and other 21st-century learning approaches; and whether students’ progress is being measured by what they accomplish, not when and how it’s done; and
  • Transparency: whether the state’s leaders are transparent and open about their policies and curriculum choices, and whether district and school test scores, graduation rates, and other important data are readily available to parents.

All of this depends on another critical factor, of course: leadership — whether a state’s political and educational leaders are willing to create and expand programs that allow educational choice and individualized learning programs to thrive.

That’s where we’re seeing some good news, not only in terms of the important advances in educational freedom that several states made during the past year but also in the recent election results.

In Illinois, for example, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, during his successful reelection campaign, reversed his previous opposition to the state’s modest tax-credit scholarship program, which provides financial support for students to attend private and parochial schools. It’s still far from a wholehearted commitment to educational choice, but it’s a start.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, now Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro strongly endorsed “adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students,” as well as “funding [for] lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states.”

Both might take a page from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose convincing reelection mandate was based, at least in part, on his unwavering commitment to parent power and education freedom.

It’s understandable that many parents are fed up. Parent power can help get troubled schools — and troubled school systems — back on track.

Jeanne Allen is founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, an education policy and advocacy organization, which administers the annual $1 million Yass Prize for Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding, and Permissionless Education, and the STOP Awards Initiative, which provides more than $16 million in support annually to educators who deliver outstanding results to underserved children. The 2022 Yass Prize and STOP Awards will be presented Dec. 14 in New York.