This week, the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held its first hearing in the 118th Congress on “School Choice: Expanding Educational Freedom for All.”

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Aaron Bean (FL) expressed optimism that school choice could be “the topic that can bring our body together.” He went on to say, “If I’m wrong, or [the ranking member is] wrong, let’s try to win each other over with the facts and debate as we go forward.”

Unfortunately, Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici’s subsequent remarks showed that Chair Bean’s hope was unrealized: “The majority has decided to use our first subcommittee hearing of the 118th Congress not to focus on how we can strengthen public education, but rather to promote school privatization programs disguised as school choice.” Bonamici supports “families having a voice in where and how they educate their children,” but she believes that vouchers, tax credits, scholarships, education savings accounts, and charter schools are “antithetical” to the goal of “improvement and advancement of a public education that benefits all students.” 

The hearing consisted of a member panel and a witness panel. The member panel featured Rep. Warren Davidson (OH-08), Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02), and Rep. Adrian Smith (NE-03). 

Rep. Davidson praised H.R. 5, also known as the Parents Bill of Rights Act, passed by the House. He commented on his failed amendment to the bill that, if adopted, would have required local school districts that receive federal funds under Title I and Title II to hold an open enrollment period for children inside and outside of that school district. Overall, he encouraged legislators to fund students through parents rather than schools because every child’s needs are different. 

Rep. Pocan expressed his opinion that school choice programs drain resources from public schools and are not held to the same anti-discrimination laws and academic and accountability standards that public schools are. 

Rep. Smith discussed his bill, the Educational Choice for Children Act, that would provide individuals and corporations with a new tax credit for charitable contributions to tax-exempt organizations that grant scholarships to elementary and secondary school students. All existing public education resources would remain in place as non-governmental scholarship-granting organizations administer the scholarships. Rep. Smith urges the passing of this bill because “it is incumbent upon us to come together and put forward creative solutions to ensure all children can access a quality education, no matter their background or where they live.” 

The “second all-star panel”—in the words of Chair Bean—featured The Honorable Luke Messer, former Member of Congress and President of Invest in Education Foundation; Mr. Derek Black, Professor of Law and Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina; Mrs. Denisha Allen, Senior Fellow at American Federation for Children; and Dr. Lindsey Burke, Director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. 

Messer focused on the learning loss caused by the pandemic and urged the passing of the Educational Choice for Children Act. While he praised the Parents Bill of Rights, he asserted: “School choice is the engine that makes the Parents Bill of Rights enforceable.” Additionally, he expressed why parents need school choice: “Parents need the freedom to choose the education environment that best meets their child’s needs. Parents, especially lower-income parents, need the power to be able to leave the government-assigned school that isn’t working for their child. Parents need school choice.”

Black concentrated on four issues: states’ constitutional duty in education, the financial impact of vouchers on public education, the exemption of private schools from some anti-discrimination measures, and student achievement. 

Allen shared the impact of school choice through her powerful story. She failed the third grade twice, but because of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, she was able to attend a small faith-based private school and go from earning Ds and Fs to making As and Bs. She went on to earn her undergraduate and master’s degrees and now works through American Federation for Children and Black Minds Matter to ensure that students across the nation can have the same educational opportunities she did. As Allen declared, “Students in this country deserve a K through 12 option that is beyond the singular one the government has assigned to them.” 

Burke highlighted the recent expansion of school choice across the nation, the benefits of school choice programs, backed up by randomized control trial evaluations, and the abysmal reading and math scores, revealed by the Nation’s Record Card. She urged Congress to stabilize and expand D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program and provide education savings accounts to Native American students and children from active-duty military families. She concluded, “Education choice provides a needed course correction aligning K-12 education with the rest of the American experience—one based on free choice and the accountability to consumers created through competition even in the case of publicly funded programs.” 

Following the witnesses’ testimonies, questions and answers revolved around the relationship between money and academic achievement, parental involvement in children’s education, educational options for those with special needs and disabilities, and school choice’s effects on public schools. 

Several memorable moments from the Q & A stand out. 

Burke made a helpful distinction between the financing of education and the delivery of schooling: “Just because we publicly finance education does not 

require government delivery of schooling.” Publicly funding education should not preclude families from choosing what school works best for their children. 

During his remarks, Rep. Burgess Owens declared that education freedom is a “civil rights issue of our time.”

When the conversation devolved to the U.S. Department of Education and teachers’ unions, Rep. Lisa McClain brought it back to the heart of the hearing: students. She asked each witness if they support the students because “the goal today is about students.” 

Rep. Kevin Kiley demonstrated that a state’s school spending ranking does not correlate to educational outcomes when he compared National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores for students eligible for free or reduced lunch in Florida and D.C. Although D.C. has one of the highest ratings in public education funding compared to Florida (D.C. received an “A” versus Florida’s “F” in funding level), its reading scores were significantly lower than those in Florida when doing an apples-to-apples comparison. 

While the hearing did not bring the committee body together, it did deliver on Chair Bean’s hope for a robust conversation of facts and debate, ultimately showing, as Allen aptly put it, school choice is the “rising tide that lifts all boats.”