William Bennett, Karen Nussle: Education freedom scholarships will create opportunities

Day after day, students are told that they must work hard to obtain a degree or certificate that will make them competitive when they enter the workforce. Yet we do not have the same expectations for our schools themselves. Too many public schools are failing students, and private school is a financially out-of-reach dream for most families.

The recently announced federal Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act seeks to fix this issue. The proposal would create dollar-for-dollar federal tax credits for businesses and individuals who wish to invest in groups that offer scholarships.

There are 18 states that currently offer a similar type of scholarship tax credit, but creating this on the federal level would ensure equitable access to greater education choices for every student in our country. The federal tax credits would represent a historic $5 billion investment in education.

The most fundamental component of education should be that parents and guardians are intimately involved. Parents have a right to know what their children are learning. More importantly, parents should have choices about where their children go to school. Unfortunately, too many families have no choice but to send their children to an under-performing neighborhood public school. Breaking down the barriers between where a student lives and the opportunities she has for a high-quality education should be a primary concern for all educators, policymakers and elected officials.

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Education Freedom Scholarships can expand choice in so many ways that do absolutely nothing to threaten the overall public school system, despite what opponents claim. The scholarships can expand access at traditional public schools by providing funds to expand programs and services.

The scholarships can also provide funds to allow students to attend private or religious schools. They can also cover educational expenses such as tutoring services, elective courses such as art or music, advanced courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, purchasing educational technology, and covering fees for summer programs.

The scholarships can also cover costs to give parents a choice for when their neighborhood school is failing to provide quality education. But that doesn’t threaten the public school; instead, it makes clear that these schools need serious interventions. For decades, we have thrown money at public schools that continue to graduate students who can’t read, can’t perform basic arithmetic and have few paths for success. Throwing more money at them isn’t the solution, but opponents of expanding choice are turning a blind eye to the real problems in our educational system.

Freedom Scholarships will empower states to lead the way in developing creative approaches to expanding educational opportunities for students from low-income families, students with disabilities and those who are not being well served by their current school environment.

The one-size-fits-all system we have doesn’t work. We have to look no further than the skills gap that concerns employers across the country. There are about 7 million job openings in the United States but not enough high school graduates with the skills to fill them.

That gap is growing: according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, we needed at least 4.7 million new workers with post-secondary education certificates last year. But too many schools aren’t adequately preparing students with basic skills needed for the workforce.

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Freedom Scholarships can target students who want to enroll in high-demand career pathways or can provide opportunities for industry-recognized apprenticeships. Scholarships can cover tuition for dual- or concurrent enrollment; books and educational materials; fees for program costs, industry exams and certificates; tools and personal protective equipment like steel-toed boots, welding gloves, computers or medical scrubs.

Supporters of traditional public schools have dug in their opposition to expanding choice. But they’re fighting against giving students what they need to succeed. Freedom Scholarships will empower states to lead the way in developing creative approaches to expanding educational opportunities for students from low-income families, students with disabilities and those who are not being well-served by their current school environment. The longer we take approving these important tax credits, the more we harm students’ futures.

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William J. Bennett served as Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan. He is the chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education. Karen Nussle is the President of Conservative Leaders for Education.