Concern over school safety has fanned the flames of gun control efforts and prompted debates about metal detectors and arming teachers. But could it also give the school choice movement a boost?
Advocates hope so and are rallying behind a new safety-themed choice program: the Child Safety Account (CSA). It would give money to parents who want to take their students out of neighborhood public schools because of bullying, harassment, threats, or actual violence. Parents could use those funds to pay for other public schools, private schools, or homeschool expenses.
If you think the CSA sounds a lot like the ESA (education savings account), you’re right.
It’s the same thing, under a different name. But it creates a whole new marketing opportunity.
“The U.S. education system’s failure to protect children and provide parents with reasonable alternatives is precisely why CSA programs are so desperately needed,” wrote Tim Benson with The Heartland Institute. “As things stand now, the system only effectively allows wealthier families to move their child to a safer school when they feel it is imperative. This privilege should be afforded to all families, as every child deserves to have the resources available to allow them to escape an unsafe school environment.”
Replace “unsafe” with “low-performing” and you have the sales pitch for ESAs.
That duplication isn’t a bad thing. If choice advocates can win support for taxpayer-funded savings accounts for a limited group of students, they have a better chance getting them approved for all students. That’s why many choice measures, including vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, tend to first win approval for low-income families or special needs students.
The new CSA proposal has one major advantage over limited ESAs, which many parents could dismiss as addressing someone else’s problem. All parents are concerned about safety, especially when the definition of unsafe expands past gun violence, which remains incredibly rare.
General violence is much more common. In his pitch for CSAs, Benson cites government statistics from the 2015-2016 school year, released by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. The government data shows that 1 in 50 students experienced some kind of “serious offense” on school grounds that year. Examples include physical attacks or fights, both with and without weapons, robberies, sexual assault, and rape.
Reading through the statistics is enough to make any parent say, “I’m not sending my baby into that kind of environment. No way!”
That universal desire to keep children safe could be the rallying cry choice advocates need to gain widespread acceptance for the idea of taking taxpayer money away from public schools. So far, that’s been a really hard sell.
But creating an escape route for students who attend dangerous public schools already has some history of bipartisan support as part of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. That bill allows students trapped in “persistently dangerous” schools to transfer to another public school. But persistent danger is a high bar, and only 55 of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public school campuses earned that designation during the 2015-2016 school year.
Perception is often the enemy of reality. But in this case, the widespread narrative that schools are unsafe because of gun violence could help highlight the much more common dangers students face every day. If so, perception could become the school choice movement’s best friend.