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States Winning on School Choice, Tee Up Academic Transparency

March 8, 2023

2023 has opened the floodgates of educational freedom. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ “Arkansas LEARNS” package cleared both chambers of her state’s legislature in recent days before Sanders signed it into law, meaning Arkansas has joined Iowa, Utah, West Virginia, and Arizona in offering every student access to school choice via an education savings account (ESA). Meanwhile, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an entire “campaign” to give all Lone Star State parents the right to choose their children’s schooling environment, his lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has echoed calls for a “special session” to get the job done. And under the watch of Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, eligibility for the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program is poised to expand to all students of the Sunshine State.

In less than two years, the number of such universal ESA programs went from zero to five—and counting. After it took over a decade from the time Arizona launched the nation’s first ESA program to the time lawmakers adopted the first statewide ESA programs in Arizona and West Virginia, universal school choice is now advancing at breakneck speed.

Moreover, thanks to over a decade’s worth of experience with ESA programs in the Grand Canyon State and elsewhere, states like Texas can already see the concrete results of opportunity and success. As data from Arizona shows, for instance, ESA usage has been most popular among families in rural parts of the state such as the San Carlos reservation lands, where over 100 families a year use ESAs at a fraction of the $15,000-per-pupil cost of the nearby failing public school system to find private educational options for their children.

In addition to the impacts of school choice, however, champions of educational freedom have made clear—from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to DeSantis to Sanders—that educational freedom also requires equipping parents with the tools to navigate the landscape of educational options. Parents need to be able to identify and avoid operators that promote politicized, divisive content steeped in radical gender and critical race theory (CRT) content. That means academic (curriculum) transparency—requiring public schools to disclose online the actual materials being used to instruct (or indoctrinate) students.

As the American Enterprise Institute’s Max Eden echoed this past week, state lawmakers concerned about parents’ rights must implement online academic transparency to ensure that parents know exactly what is being offered in their local public schools. Already, headlines around the country have made clear that merely “banning” CRT and the like simply invites bad actors to rebrand their materials. Indeed, for those concerned about Arkansas educators found to be secretly teaching such content, or new findings that “Texas educators admit they defy Abbott’s critical race theory ban with ease,” it is essential to bring a solution.

Gov. Sanders has called for online curriculum transparency. Gov. Reynolds has already helped steer robust legislation working its way through her state senate, and Texas lawmaker Steve Toth has introduced a bill enacting powerful academic transparency provisions. Each of these policymakers and their states now have the opportunity to take on what former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos described as “the next battle in the war for parents’ rights in education:” academic transparency.

Such policies will not only ensure that schools are forthright about what they are offering, but they will also aid young teachers by helping them replicate the approach used by more effective veteran educators. Rather than leaving novice, first-year teachers spending hours each week scouring the internet for videos and links to supplement their classroom lessons, academic transparency will provide an accessible resource for these young teachers to model their syllabi after other, more established educators. The result: a win-win for teachers, parents and students.

Gov. Sanders’ education platform has been hailed as “the biggest, boldest reform in the country.” Now, having achieved victory in the fight for universal school choice, she and her peers have the opportunity to take the next step in strengthening our education system by passing full online academic transparency as well.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as director of the institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.



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