States Can Expand Educational Freedom Through Federal Tax Credit | Opinion

Throughout the nation, parents are demanding educational freedom for K–12 students. A majority of states have adopted school choice programs, yet most are limited by the resources available and student eligibility.

Congress and the Biden administration should expand K–12 educational freedom. Doing so would benefit millions more students and empower every parent to choose the most suitable education for their children. The federal government can do this and still respect federalism by remaining within constitutional boundaries that properly defer education policy and governance to state and local jurisdictions.

Accordingly, Congress can amend the federal tax code to encourage private donations by individuals and businesses to expand educational choice and opportunity. This tax-incentive approach would avoid placing new mandates on states and school districts—precluding new federal spending or bureaucratic interference. Accordingly, there would be no role for the U.S. Department of Education, and the autonomy and religious liberty of participating entities would be protected. Nearly two dozen states already use similar tax incentives to provide educational options to children.

The Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA)—proposed by U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), along with Reps. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) and Burgess Owens (R-Utah)—would provide up to $10 billion in annual tax credits against federal income and corporate taxes for individuals and businesses donating to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations for K–12 education.

That $10 billion in ECCA tax credits would go directly toward funding K–12 scholarships. These scholarships would provide up to two million children access to a high-quality education—more than tripling the number of students who currently benefit from private school choice programs.

The ECCA would also empower every parent to "shop for" and access educational opportunities other than their children's district-assigned public school.

Expanding educational options brings real accountability to school boards and teachers' unions, which will need to respond to dissatisfied parents—or lose them. By allowing for competition, educational choice benefits not only participants but students who remain in public schools.

Classroom in Phoenix, AZ
Aisha Thomas (L) is learns teaching skills with teacher Alexxa Martinez, in her classroom in Nevitt Elementary School, in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 26, 2022. - Teachers in Arizona are among the United States' lowest paid, making the cost-of-living crisis even more acute for educators in this key battleground for the upcoming mid-term elections. Olivier TOURON / AFP/Getty Images

Several studies confirm that expanding educational opportunity improves the academic outcomes of public school students. Additional studies show the fiscal benefits of educational choice programs and the gains for students served with scholarships.

Now more than ever, America's students need education alternatives. Such reforms will help them catch up from COVID-19 pandemic learning loss—the 2022 Nation's Report Card shows that fewer than one-third of eighth-grade students are proficient at reading or math. While many students live in good school districts, too many are trapped in underperforming schools that are not meeting their needs.

ECCA-supported scholarships would give students educational freedom—helping ensure that they can choose the learning environment that works best for them.

The ECCA's federal tax credit would complement existing tax credit scholarship programs at the state level. Pennsylvania, for example, currently has tax credit programs that provide 62,000 K–12 students with an average scholarship of around $2,500. The ECCA would give more Pennsylvania students access to schools of their choice and allow for larger scholarship amounts.

The ECCA adds to existing state programs, but is all the more vital for children in states without scholarships or other means to access educational alternatives. For example, Pennsylvania's neighbors to the east and north—New Jersey and New York—have no such school choice programs.

State organizations committed to education freedom should support the ECCA and help bring about expanded K–12 school options and greater accountability in public education. Our organizations—Invest in Education and the Commonwealth Foundation—are among the dozens of nonprofit organizations that have partnered to advocate for the ECCA.

Expanding school choice opportunities is a popular, bipartisan measure. State tax credit scholarship programs like Pennsylvania's have experienced remarkable success, with student demand for scholarships far exceeding program limits. Polls consistently show that voters across the nation—regardless of ethnicity, race, or political party—overwhelmingly support educational choice.

As the new Congress begins its work, our representatives in Washington should respond to the parental consensus to pass the ECCA to empower families and bring greater accountability to the public education system. America's children deserve nothing less.

Nathan A. Benefield is the Senior Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, a statewide public policy organization based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Luke Messer, a former member of Congress representing Indiana, serves as the President of Invest in Education Coalition, which advocates for education freedom, based in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.