The Heartland Institute’s Expert on Education Timothy Benson Outlines Trends in School Choice and the ESA Program


Live from Music Row Wednesday 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 Tim Benson of the Heartland Institute to the newsmakers line.

During the second hour, Benson discussed school choice legislation and the trends statewide proving a heavy want for other educations options for parents. He later discussed some polling that indicated about 82 percent of parents wanted the school voucher program in light of the COVID pandemic which has revealed the true colors of the education bueracracy.

Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker lined by Tim Benson with the Heartland Institute. He’s an expert on education policy. Tim, good morning.

Benson: Hey, good morning. How you doing?

Leahy: I’m doing great. Now the Heartland Institute is based in Chicago I believe which is cold and frigid like Nashville is today, but I see that you might actually be living in a warm climate today.

Benson: Yeah, I work remotely so I live in South Florida.

Leahy: Any ice today in South Florida Tim?

Benson: No. It’s overcast and rainy but it’s going to be like 82.

Leahy: So everybody in our listening audience just went oh my goodness because we’ve had temperatures in the teens here. And we’ve had ice storms and everything is shut down here. We did make it into the studio today, but we are delighted that somebody is living in a warm area of the country today.

Benson: Well, if it makes you feel better, there’s a cold front coming in this weekend and it’s gonna drop temperatures to the high of 60s.

Leahy: Yeah, that makes us feel so much better Tim. (Chuckles) You are an expert on education savings accounts and you’ve been writing about that quite a bit. Where overall and what kind of progress is state by state is being made in education savings accounts? Often called vouchers.

Benson: Well, it’s been a really busy legislative session so far across the country in 2021 most likely due to the COVID pandemic and the teachers unions trying to get keep public schools from reopening. And a lot of parents are getting fed up across the country. But I think they’ve been 22 or 23 different states where there’s been some sort of private school choice legislation that’s been introduced whether it’s an education savings account or tax credit scholarship or just a regular voucher. Mostly education savings accounts though. And it has been four states that have had bills that have already passed that out of the Chamber.

Leahy: Which are those states?

Benson: Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Arizona. And then there’s four more that have passed bills out of committees. They are working their way through. That’s Missouri, West Virginia, South Dakota, and here in Florida.

Leahy: So I’ve heard that Indiana has been a leader in this movement for some time. Is that right?

Benson: Yes. That’s absolutely true. Indiana is has been a leader in the school choice movement for a decade and a half. Now they have a quite a few kids making use of their school choice programs. They offer a few different programs to parents. The bill passed in their House of Representatives just yesterday I believe that would double the size of their choice scholarship program which is a voucher program. Participation in that is about 35,000 students.

Leahy: 35,000. Okay. That’s good. But in Indiana, they have about half a million? How many students do they have overall there? Quite a few.

Benson: I’m not sure overall how many students. But the numbers making use of school choice programs in the country are pretty small. Here in Florida, we have the most. We have about 175,000 kids making use of our school choice programs down here.

Leahy: But that is only I think about 3 percent. Very small. And yet it seems to me from what I’ve been reading that the teachers unions across the country in every state are adamantly opposed to education savings account voucher systems. Is that still the case here in the COVID era of 2021?

Benson: Nothing has changed there. They’re never going to be in favor of any bill that sets up a program that threatens the monopoly that public schools have right now on American families and education. So they’re they’re going to fight that tooth and nail forever.

Leahy: Are you seeing I don’t know if you do polling. But are you seeing an increase in the desire for educational choice among parents around the country?

Benson: I don’t really do any polling. In Florida, it’s a little different because we’ve been open for in-person learning down here since the beginning of the school year since last August. So it hasn’t been as big of an issue down here just because things have pretty much returned to normal in that regard. I mean parents will have the ability to opt their child out of in-person learning if they chose to do so.

But most kids are still going to school every day down here like a normal school year. But in other parts of the country, kids have been out of school now for close to a year with no signs of being able to go back. Their kids might be stuck in remote learning for you know, a year and a half by the time they’re able to go back to school or allowed to go back to school. It’s becoming more and more of an issue and it’s much more pressing.

And the people that do polling on this is a school choice organization out of Indiana called the American Federation for Children. And they’re finding support for choice programs like ESA’s are the highest they’ve ever been since they’ve been doing polling. And they’ve been doing polling on these for close to a decade. I think the last choice poll that came out in December 2020 basically supported ESA’s 81 to 82 percent.

Leahy: That’s very high. And do you think among Black parents and Hispanic parents that it’s even higher than the general population?

Benson: Yeah, that’s correct. If you look at income tiers and you look at lower household incomes they obviously have more support for these programs.

Leahy: Right because they want to get out of the K-12 public school system, which has been performing shall we say in the kindest word we could use to describe the performance of the K-12 public system as a whole has been they’ve been performing poorly for many years.

Benson: Yes. If you look at the government department of education’s what’s called like the nation’s report card, they measure students in like math and science and reading or excuse me, math and reading. Every two years they update this and in most states that the highest performing states like Massachusetts and New Jersey you find that only about 40 to 50 percent are tested.

I believe eighth grade and third grade and only about half of the children taking the test end up testing proficient at their grade level in either math or reading and in other states. And in many cities, it’s much lower. I think like in Detroit they get fewer than 10 percent of their kids up to grade level in those subjects.

Leahy: Wow. That that is pretty bad. If you were to look into your crystal ball, Tim and let’s say we jump forward to the summer. Most of these state legislators have finished their term. What will be in your view likely a headline that we’ll see in terms of what has been accomplished in education choice during the session?

Benson: Well, it’s hard to tell. I think we’ll probably see three or four or five of these bills that will pass. A lot of these bills are in states that both chambers of the legislators are controlled by Democrats. So those things aren’t really going to move. Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Connecticut, and places like that. I think COVID the pandemic and the response to schools reopening from the teachers union is sort of at an inflection point or tipping point.

This is like said the busiest session I’ve seen when it comes to school choice legislation. I think parents now finally get it. And in a lot of places where they didn’t get it before that these unions are not the friends of your kids and they never have been they are realizing this and they are seeking options to get their kids out of the system.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo ‘Timothy Benson” by The Heartland Institute. 












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