During the summer, the two largest teachers unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—met to discuss their priorities and hear from teachers unions’ supporters. Instead of focusing on crucial academic issues facing America’s students, the unions promoted their ideological agenda and attacked what they saw as the enemy, whether that be school choice or mothers voicing concerns about activism in schools.   

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke at the AFT’s 2023 professional development conference called the TEACH Conference (“Together Educating America’s Children”). During his remarks, Cardona criticized state school choice programs, especially in Indiana and Arizona, claiming, 

When you look closer, you find that it’s mainly wealthier families getting their private school tuition bills paid while schools in communities with the greatest needs have 95 degree classrooms, and substitute teachers in virtually every classroom.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Mostly false or misleading. Significant errors or omissions. Mostly make believe.

Indiana has several school choice programs, including a scholarship (voucher) program, a tax credit scholarship program, and an Education Savings Account (ESA) program. 

The Hoosier State’s Choice Scholarship Program, launched in 2011, provides vouchers to low- and middle-income families to attend private schools. The average income for participating families last year was $81,817, an increase of over $13,000 since 2021-22, but certainly not “wealthy.” This year, Indiana reported an increase of 20% in its scholarship program with more than 53,000 students participating. This came before Indiana made vouchers almost universal and raised the income cap. The tax credit scholarship program, launched in 2010, historically served low- to middle-income families, as well.

Indiana’s ESA program goes to students with special needs to provide funding for private school tuition or educational expenses, such as special needs services and therapies, individual classes, testing fees, and transportation. In 2022-2023, 173 students participated in the program.  According to its most recent annual report, over 70% of students who participated in the ESA program have attended an Indiana public school before. Over 43% came from a public school just the year prior.  

Arizona also offers families multiple school choice options, including tax credit scholarship programs and an ESA program that was launched in 2011 initially to serve students with disabilities. Common Sense Institute Arizona found that lower-middle and middle-income families benefit from Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program the most. The average Arizona family has an income of over $69,000 per year, but the average ESA Arizona family makes only $60,600.  

Additionally, many families utilizing ESAs come from the public school system. Early in 2023, the Arizona Department of Education announced that 49% of the students in their ESA program had public school experience. Over the past three years, Arizona public schools have seen enrollment decline by 80,000. Arizona’s ESA program is not just serving children who are already in private school, but also enabling parents with the means to choose the school that is best for their children. 

Arizona’s program continues to help many students with disabilities that require individualized academic help. According to the Grand Canyon State’s most recent quarterly ESA report, the school choice program serves 9,694 students with disabilities, including autism, hearing impairment, and speech impairment. Arizona’s ESA program has provided for the special learning needs of many students like Malachi and Isaiah

Without education freedom programs, like those in Indiana and Arizona, the wealthy already have school choice. They can pay for private school tuition,  move to a neighborhood with a better public school system, and pay for tutoring services. The less well-off do not have this luxury. School choice programs enable these families to have educational options like the wealthy. 

School choice programs not only help the families directly benefiting from them. What Cardona fails to recognize is that school choice helps all students and teachers, whether in public or private schools. It creates competition that incentivizes all schools to improve. Of the 29 studies that have analyzed the impact of private school choice programs, 26 found statistically significant positive effects of private school choice competition on the outcomes in public schools.   

Overall, school choice programs in Indiana and Arizona benefit all families, rich and poor alike, and especially help those with lower incomes, those with children who have special needs or disabilities, and those coming from public schools. 

Over the course of this back-to-school season, Independent Women’s Forum will be exposing misleading and inaccurate quotes from teachers’ unions and their advocates through a series of Unicorn Fact Checks.