Inez Feltscher Stepman Weighs in on Why School Choice Is Now More Important Than Ever
Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Inez Feltscher Stepman who is the senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum to the newsmakers line.
During the second hour, Stepman outlined what she saw as the Biden administration’s agenda for public schools revealing the opportunity states would have in response giving parents choice and leverage. She later explained how over two dozen viable school choice programs and expansions of those programs have been proposed by legislatures in 17 states nationwide.
Leahy: We are joined on the newsmaker line now by Inez Stepman. A senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum and a senior contributor to The Federalist. She has a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California at San Diego. A J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, and she lives in New York City now with her husband. Inez, welcome to The Tennessee Star Report.
Stepman: It’s great to be here. Thanks.
Leahy: So you have had a little bit of a geographic tour of the United States. San Diego, UVA Law School, and New York City. These are three places that are really quite different, aren’t they?
Stepman: Absolutely. And in between that I lived in Phoenix for a short time. Definitely a couple of other places as well. So I’ve done a lot of looking around America, which has been really great actually. I’ve driven back and forth as well a few times which has been awesome. It’s a great country.
Leahy: It gives you a good perspective that I think that a lot of people, you know in Washington D.C. who’ve lived there all their lives don’t quite have. I wanted to have you on the program today it is because you wrote a really great op-ed at The Hill about a week ago. Coronavirus Spotlights Why School Choice is More Important Than Ever. Tell us about your argument.
Stepman: Well, I think Americans have been forced to recognize a truth that maybe some of us who have been working in education policy or have seen working with teachers unions or opposition to teachers unions for quite some time. But I think it’s now it’s hard to deny that teachers unions and generally the district schools, priorities are simply are not children’s education. Their priorities are protecting the adults in our system.
And I think these school reopening battles across the country have really shown how that’s true. And it’s made it really clear to a lot of families who might have thought previously that they might have had issues with their district school. They might have not liked what’s being taught and social studies or something like that. But they thought that the school was generally well-intentioned and that the priority of a lot of the adults was an education for their children.
And unfortunately, we’re seeing that these negotiations in many cases are not taking place with good faith on the part of unions or good faith on the part of school districts. They are essentially ignoring family’s needs and their children’s needs because they can. Because the system is set up to allow them to continue to ignore families.
Leahy: Let me read this paragraph from your excellent op-ed at The Hill. “President Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona remains somewhat of a cipher. However, Biden’s choice for Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten is primarily known for keeping San Diego schools firmly closed and injecting critical race theory into classrooms including praising a proposal to send all White teachers to quote ‘anti-racist therapy.'” What does the Biden administration have in line for school choice and education in America?
Stepman: Well, I think that the first EO the Biden administration put out within the first couple of days of the administration is a good indicator of where that administration is going to go on education. And that is the EO on Title 9, which people are focusing on sports, right? So this EO demands essentially defines discrimination on the basis of sex in our civil rights law as including gender identity and including the ability of biological males for example to run on the women’s track team. But it’s broader than just sports, right?
It applies to locker rooms and applies to bathrooms or any kind of real single-sex environments at Public Schools. I think that’s a good indication of where the administration is going because I think it’s going to be a lot of culturally “woke” EOs, policies, or Grant programs. Now, fortunately, the vast majority of education decisions are still made on the state level. It’s at the state and local levels.
The vast majority of the money that goes to fund education comes from the state and local. And so the good news is I think the states have an enormous opportunity to push back against this and to push back against repeated school closures and sometimes ridiculous demands from teachers. For example in Fairfax County in Virginia teachers unions are actually demanding that schools stay shut and not resume normal in-person learning until well into 2022.
They’re saying that they don’t want to reopen until all the students not just all the teachers but all the students are vaccinated. We don’t even have a vaccine approved for kids yet. So, you know that we’re talking about years and years of kids’ lives and their education is on hold until well into 2022. I think that problem and to push back against whatever woke EOs the Biden administration has in store for schools, states have an enormous opportunity to give parents choice and leverage by starting to route some of the enormous amounts of money that we spend on K-12 education directly to families instead of sending it to districts.
Leahy: Here’s a question for you. Why don’t state governments just tell the federal government, you know that 10 percent of education funding that we get from you? Why don’t governments just say hey Biden administration, you can take that 10 percent of that education money and all of your regulations and you can keep them in Washington. We don’t want them. We’re going to run our schools the way we want with state and local money only. Do you see that as a possibility?
Stepman: Well, (Chuckles) what’s the Reagan quote? There’s nothing so permanent as a government program. I would add that I’ve never seen a government agency refuse the money. (Laughter) Unfortunately, I don’t see that as a realistic possibility. Although that would be something to see. I’d certainly like to see it. But fundamentally, what states can do is say hey look at these district schools and how they are taking these grants that are heavily regulated by the feds.
The Biden administration is likely to put out more guidance on, for example, discipline which has had some really negative effects when it was done under the Obama administration. They’re likely to put out a bunch more guidance on various cultural topics from the top. But families can opt-out if the states passed the kind of programs that allow them to do so.
That allows more than just those who are wealthy enough to do that. So obviously families are opting out right now. There are 10 percent of the sector is for private schools (i.e. parents are sending and sacrificing their own money,) which is difficult and it’s a sacrifice for a lot of families who do send their kids to private school because they are paying twice right? They’re paying taxes for the public school and then they’re paying on top of that.
They’re paying tuition to a private school. And there are 2 million homeschoolers. So we already have quite robust alternatives to the public school system, but not every family can take advantage of that for a variety of reasons. Whether that’s financial or whether it’s simply a time issue for with homeschooling or in some cases families just are not set up to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities without the additional financial assistance.
As long as they’re paying double, right? So states have a huge opportunity now, I think. And I think they’re taking advantage of it. We’ve seen well over two dozen viable school choice programs and expansions of school choice programs expanded or bills to expand them offered in state legislature so far in 17 different states. So I think the states are looking at this.
And I think what is really going to determine the future of the education system and not just for this year but I think for the next 10 or 20 years is really going to be how active families are in voicing the fact to their state legislatures that these kinds of school choice programs are not an option. Especially after the experience that we’ve had for the last year that these are a necessity.
And they are a necessity. Not just those for those who want to use them to leave the public school system. Although that’s definitely part of it. They’re necessary for families who want to see stay in the public school system because of that next appointment between the PTA and the Superintendent. Or that next appointment you have with your principal to express dissatisfaction with something about your child’s education is going to go a lot differently if the superintendent, the principal, or the teachers union knows that their salaries are dependent upon your decision about whether or not you’re happy with the education your child gets. So that my friends is called leverage. And that’s what I think American families deserve.
Leahy: Inez Stepman, SEnior Policy on School Choice with the Independent Women’s Forum. Thank you for joining us today. Please come back.
Stepman: Thank you so much for having me.
Listen to the full second hour here:
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