Heritage Foundation Releases Inaugural Education Freedom Report, Florida Ranks First

By Terri Wu
Terri Wu
Terri Wu
Terri Wu is a Washington-based freelance reporter for The Epoch Times covering education and China-related issues. Send tips to terri.wu@epochtimes.com.
September 9, 2022 Updated: September 10, 2022

WASHINGTON—The Heritage Foundation released its inaugural Education Freedom Report Card Friday, ranking Florida the highest and the District of Columbia the lowest among all states. Arizona and Idaho followed Florida as No. 2 and 3. Along with the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York were at the bottom of the list.

Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation and the lead author, told The Epoch Times that the report measured parent empowerment: “While we consider academic outcomes—particularly as a return-on-investment for taxpayer dollars measure—this report card is really about assessing the power that parents have in directing their children’s learning.”

“This report is distinct from everything else out there because we measure education freedom,” she added.

The overall ranking was measured on whether parents can choose a school to send their children to, be it a public, private, or charter school that is also public but not run by the school districts; transparency of school curriculum and programs; regulatory freedom in curriculum options; and per-pupil spending.

In the transparency category, the Foundation used the IndoctriNation Map by Parents Defending Education (PDE), a parental rights advocacy group. The map tracks the number of parent organizations and the number of reported indoctrination incidents. An incident, for example, is listed on PDE’s website as a school donating $25,000 to a teaching conference claiming all society members participate in racism and white supremacy.

The regulatory freedom category tracked the number of chief diversity officers (CDO) in school districts with 15,000 students or more and whether schools used Common Core testing requirements, which limits curriculum options.

The official CDO job description lists the prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion as the primary responsibility. However, Jay Greene, a senior research fellow with the Center for Education Policy at Heritage, said CDOs “may be best understood as political activists who articulate and enforce an ideological orthodoxy within school districts.”

A 2021 Heritage Foundation study identified that school districts with CDOs had more significant achievement gaps between races and student economic statuses.

Burke explained additional research considerations: “So we considered education choice, but also whether families have access to the content their child’s school is teaching, whether school board elections are on-cycle—and as such, are less likely to be dominated by teachers’ unions—the strength of states’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, and a host of other parent empowerment measures.”

Emphasis on Parental Rights

The Heritage report was released days after the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” announced that age 9 students in 2022 showed the most significant average score decline in reading since 1990 and the first ever dip in math score since the 1970s.

The state-by-state data isn’t available yet. However, at the report launch event in Orlando on the same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis predicted that the COVID-related learning loss in the Sunshine State would be less than that in the “lockdown states”—states that closed their schools during the pandemic.

The governor was proud that Florida ranked number one on the Heritage Foundation’s education freedom report card. He said that since he became Florida governor in 2019, “our emphasis on the rights of parents to help direct the education and upbringing of their kids” has probably been “the most significant flashpoint” in Florida and even all over America.

He summarized Florida’s achievement in schools as keeping in-person learning during the pandemic, banning critical race theory—a quasi-Marxist framework that views America as systematically racist—and increasing civics studies, removing the “hardcore pornography” books in libraries, and stopping transgender ideology and gender transition without parents’ knowledge or consent.

“What we have shown in Florida is you can succeed. You can stand for regular people, and we can beat these elites across the board,” DeSantis said at the event, adding that parents and students should be in charge.

“Our formula has been very simple,” added the governor seeking reelection in November. “When the world goes mad, there’s a premium on people that will just exercise common sense and will just speak the truth.”

Taking Back Schools for Parents

At the celebration event in Orlando, Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative think tank, hailed the report as “the most important research product a think tank could produce because it is the lever for taking back our schools for our kids, our parents, and our family.”

Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators (AAE), a non-union professional educators organization, welcomed the Heritage report. “Information is power, and The Heritage Foundation has done a great service to parents, educators, and voters by collecting and thoughtfully organizing information about school options for our kids,” he told The Epoch Times.

“One size never fits all, and the freedom of a parent or educator to find the community and school to best serve their needs is vital. This resource will make that easier and encourage states to consider how they score,” he continued. Founded in 1994, AAE serves 28,000 members—any adults working in any school type—in all 50 states.

School Choice in Virginia

Epoch Times Photo
Natassia Grover (L) and her daughter Jolene in Ashburn, Va., on Jan. 9, 2022. (Graeme Jennings for The Epoch Times)

The report certainly caught the attention of Natassia Grover, director of Virginia for Educational Freedom (VEF), an advocacy group for school choice programs. Virginia’s overall ranking was 20 out of 51. However, its school choice ranked 42.

“I’m not surprised to see such a poor ranking for School Choice in [Virginia],” she told The Epoch Times. “It truly is disappointing, with all the campaign promises they made, that the governor and the Republican caucus have not passed real School Choice in Virginia.”

In the 2022 session of the Virginia General Assembly, a state delegate sponsored a bill for an Education Savings Account (ESA) program, in which the state Department of Education would deposit education funds for parents to pay tuition at their school of choice for their children.

The bill, aiming to make an ESA program effective in September 2022, didn’t pass the state legislature earlier this year. In 2016, former Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a school choice bill that would have enabled ESAs. Later, in 2017, then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, cast the tie-breaking vote in the Virginia Senate to stop ESA-related legislation.

According to Grover, her organization is working with Virginia Republican state Delegate Marie March to continue the legislative effort and pass the “real School Choice” program.

“If we’re really going to break the government monopoly on education in Virginia, we have to put heavy pressure on the governor and the Republican caucus. And that’s exactly what we plan to do,” she added. “Proof will be whether or not the governor and Republican leadership support this effort.”

Terri Wu
Terri Wu is a Washington-based freelance reporter for The Epoch Times covering education and China-related issues. Send tips to terri.wu@epochtimes.com.