Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews recently admitted he doesn’t pay much attention to private schools. Only 10% of children attend them—and only 5% of low-income children—so he figures what happens in public schools is more important. He now realizes he might be wrong because he’s seen some private schools “being creative in ways that should inspire all educators.”

It’s great that Mathews is realizing there’s more to education than public schools. But it would be even better if he questioned why only 5% of low-income children and 10% of kids overall attend private schools. It certainly isn’t because only 5-10% of parents want private school for their children. It’s because too many families can’t afford to pay twice for education—once in taxes for “free” public schools and then paying tuition on top of that.

Our education funding system is beyond antiquated. By the mid-1800s, most state governments had broken their states into districts and assigned children to schools within those districts. It made sense at the time. Travel and communication were incredibly difficult, so it would have been nearly impossible to offer more individualized options.

We don’t live in those times anymore. And we know—especially after the past year—that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Yet we still fund school districts and buildings instead of funding students.

Fortunately, many lawmakers realize how ludicrous this approach is in 2021. New or expanded parental choice programs have already been enacted in 13 states this year. Similar programs have been introduced in 20 other states. The biggest change is in West Virginia: a few years ago WV teachers went on strike to prevent any educational options; this year, the state adopted the most expansive education savings account in the nation.

Education is generally considered a state and local issue, but the federal government has gotten more and more involved in recent decades. While there’s no constitutional basis for this involvement—and no evidence that it’s helped—the reality is the federal government sends billions of tax dollars to school districts every year.

Rather than letting all the money continue to get sucked up by a bureaucratic system, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) recently introduced legislation that would prioritize the children. The Children Have Opportunities in Classrooms Everywhere Act, or CHOICE Act, would let low-income families with children in grades K-12 use federal education funds for the educational options that fit their needs.

Under the CHOICE Act, if an eligible student remains enrolled in a public school, the federal funds for that child remain in the public school. But if a parent chooses a private school or to homeschool, the funds would be placed in a 529 education savings plan, which is an expanded version of 529 college accounts. The CHOICE Act’s 529 expansion would add homeschool expenses to the list of eligible uses.

By funding students instead of the system, we can help more students access those creative educational options Jay Mathews mentions. And it’s clear that far more than 5-10% of families want these options. In my home state of Pennsylvania, more than 42,000 tax credit scholarship applications are rejected each year due to state-mandated caps on the program. Moreover, polling conducted last year—just before the pandemic—showed only 41% of Pennsylvania parents would choose their local district school if cost and transportation weren’t concerns. But nearly 80% of Pennsylvania students attend their local district school.

For many children, the local district school is a great option. But even in the highest-ranked districts, some families choose another option. The truth is, no school—no matter how much they spend or how well their students perform on tests—is the right fit for every child who happens to live near it. By funding students instead of the system, we can ensure all students—not just wealthy ones—have access to an excellent education.

The CHOICE Act won’t solve every problem we see in education today. But it will open new opportunities for thousands of low-income students.