School Choice

'All the Parents Want Is a Chance To Make That Choice'

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears wants state education dollars "to follow the child instead of the brick building."


"Brown v. Board of Education was never about black kids getting into a white school. It was always about ultimately a parent being able to decide where their children should attend school," argues Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears. The African-American Republican is one of the driving forces behind a new bill that would create "backpack funding" for kids in Virginia, which would allow parents to use the state's portion of per-pupil funding—somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000—at any public or private school, for tutoring, books, and other educational expenses. If the bill passes, Virginia would join eight other states (at press time) with education savings accounts (ESAs) that accomplish similar goals.

Earle-Sears was born in Jamaica in 1964 and grew up in New York City before joining the Marines and eventually settling in Virginia, where she has served in the House of Delegates and on the Virginia Board of Education. She was elected lieutenant governor in 2021 on the same ticket as Republican Glenn Youngkin, in an election where controversies over critical race theory, COVID-19 schooling, and other issues related to education played a significant role.

In January, Nick Gillespie sat down with Earle-Sears for The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie to talk about the school choice movement in Virginia and how it shouldn't be controversial for parents to decide how their children are educated.

Reason: Why is supporting education savings accounts a priority for you?

Winsome Earle-Sears: Because the scores are showing that our children aren't learning. When we're looking at 20 percent of black children only able to read by the time that they reach the third, fourth grade, that's a travesty. And we have seen through the years that no matter what was tried, it's not working. And so parents are saying it is time to do something differently, so that we can get different results. Nothing will do, I think, as much as these ESAs will do, because it will drive competition. Competition will raise all boats.

Why will ESAs spur better education outcomes?

When parents are able to choose where their children should attend school, that's a whole game changer, because now the money follows the child instead of the brick building.

I don't understand, frankly, how it can be controversial for a parent to make the decision on the child's education and the child's future. We know that as soon as anything else happens with a child, they call the parents. So why should this be any different? And by the way, there are people who say that this program helps the rich. Do you think rich parents are waiting on a government program to determine where to send their children to school? The answer is no. They have already made that choice. It is for the rest of us now to have that same opportunity.

Did you go to public or private school?

I went to public school in Jamaica as well as in New York. And my children also went to public school.

Did you feel like your parents had enough choice over where you went to school?

The intriguing thing is that when my father first brought me to America, when I was 6 years old and I entered the public school in New York, they discovered that I was not learning anything. And indeed in Jamaica, a Third World country in the 1960s, I had already had pre-K and I was starting to move into elementary school. And so I was sent back to Jamaica for school.

When I came back, I entered the ninth grade and I was told—even with my transcripts showing that I had had chemistry, physics, and biology—they said, "No, that was general science." But no, in Jamaica, you actually have chemistry, physics, and bio. So guess what? I aced everything.

With my children, we moved from California, where [my husband and I] were both in the Marine Corps. We decided to come to Virginia. I think just by the grace of God, we were able to move into a neighborhood that had a wonderful school system. It was one of the "better neighborhoods." We didn't know that. And so they had access to this, that, and the other. My children were even learning Japanese, if you can imagine, in elementary school. So it turns out that we bought the cheapest house in one of the best neighborhoods. But what about those parents who don't have that opportunity?

Critics say that ESAs divert public tax dollars from public schools. Is that a legitimate criticism?

To whom does the tax money belong to in the first place? Where did the money come from? Two-thirds of the funds stay with the public schools. One-third of the money will follow the child to whatever school, homeschool, tutoring, whatever the parent wants to do.

I would have loved it, when I had my business, if my customer said, "I'm leaving you," and I could say, "Well, two-thirds of your money stays with me." That's what this is about. All the federal funding stays with the local schools. All the local money stays with the local schools. People say, "All we need to do is just give the schools more money." Wait a minute. We've been doing that and doing that, and it's still not working right now. For example, if a child is to attend Richmond Public Schools, the [per-pupil spending] is $16,000 per year, and the children are still failing.

The state of Virginia is willing to contribute between $4,000 and $6,000 for one child's education. Can you explain how that works?

It's not a voucher because it's not direct money from the state to the parent for the child. It's going to go to a third party, and they will make the decision once they receive the request to send the money on.

Some of the pushback is, "That's not enough money." If we took all of the money, then they would say we're defunding the schools. You can't please the naysayers. The naysayers already have that choice.

You have to ask yourself, finally, what is really behind all this? It's about control, you know. This is about who will control the money. And let me tell you something. We must not fool ourselves. If we were to get ESAs through, I can tell you the teachers unions will come right to the private schools and say you all should unionize. They don't really care. They're following the money.

What are the similarities between today's school choice movement and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s?

Brown v. Board of Education was never about black kids getting into a white school. It was always about, ultimately, a parent being able to decide where their children should attend school. It's really that simple. But when you have redlining and zoning issues, then you have segregated schools, and it is mostly affecting black and brown children. Majority of the schools, when you look at them now, especially in the urban areas, they're all black and most of them are failing.

When I sat on the Virginia State Board of Education, we were able to grade the schools. And if you're failing, you don't have access to the children anymore. We're going to put the children elsewhere. Guess what? After I left the board, they lowered the standards to the point where they got rid of the ability to tell an "A" school from a "B" school. The children are in failing schools.

We have heard from so many parents from all income strata: public housing, middle-class, etc. And one mother said, "I am working two and three jobs," just so her son can have the ability to go to this school. She wants a choice.

You and Gov. Youngkin were elected in some significant part due to parental outrage over K-12 curricula, including the way state history was being taught. Last fall, the Board of Education in Virginia rejected the Youngkin administration's new history and social studies guidelines. How are the new guidelines, submitted recently, different?

I wouldn't say that it was about the way that history was being taught. They were teaching critical race theory, which is a Marxist theory, which was trying to talk about equal outcomes. There is no such thing. It was also teaching that you're privileged, for example, if you are white, if you are heterosexual, if you are male, if you're married, if you've served in the armed forces, and silly things like that, because now it encompasses just about everybody. It really was sowing seeds of chaos because then you were creating a morale issue in the schools.

The white child was told that the white child is an oppressor and the black child was told, "You're a victim. You're the oppressed." The children aren't learning. I don't send my child to school for you to indoctrinate. I send my child for you to educate. And that's what we were finding was the problem.

So nothing actually changed. And in fact, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. would be mentioned in more places than he had been before. It's just that, unfortunately, they collapsed everything and it appeared that we were taking him out in certain areas when we weren't.

A drowning man, as they say, will clutch at a straw. And when people realize that things are going to change, they throw up every roadblock that they can. They did it in Florida. And now that Florida has all those charter schools and school choice, do you know who's benefiting the most? Black children. Their scores have gone through the roof. In Virginia, with our ESAs, we're learning from all the other states that have already implemented them. We're learning from what other people have done. All the parents want is a chance to make that choice.

How has your personal experience informed how we should talk about history in schools in a country that is so vast and diverse?

My father came to America from Jamaica in 1963, 17 days before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. He came at the height of the civil rights movement. He knew what was happening in America, and yet he begged to get in, filled out the documents, and jumped through hoops and waited his turn. He came with $1.75, took any job he could find, used that money to put him through school, and now he's comfortably retired. He came at a time when there were actual dog whistles, when we really couldn't sit anywhere we wanted, and when we couldn't live where we wanted.

My husband's family, which is from Virginia—of the 15 children that his great-grandparents had, 13 of them have college degrees. They're black. There was a time when things were really bad for us. I asked my father, "Why would you come?" And he said, "Because this is where the jobs and the opportunities were." So now I would say to you, here I am. How could I say to my father that the reason why I did not succeed is because I am black? I have to make my own way in this world. And here I am. I am second in command in the former capital of the Confederate States. Do not tell me that times have not changed.

Now, is it utopia? Of course it's not. There is no such nation. What we do know is that wherever you live, there is going to be some kind of "ism." Racism. If it's not that, it's classism. If it's not, it's colorism. It's some kind of "ism." We people, not just Americans, know how to divide ourselves.

So what we have to say to our children is, "Look at us." We have overcome. Every time an obstacle is thrown in our way, we have overcome it. The slaves in the fields did not die so that we could be here talking about how we are victims. No, we are overcomers.

We're not going to deny history. Heavens, no. We must teach all of history. We must talk about the truth of history. We must talk about the Founders, some of which were, in fact, slaveholders. They were imperfect people. They left us the Constitution. They left us the Declaration of Independence, under which I was elected and under which Barack Obama was elected president, not just once, but twice. We have a saying in church, "I may not be what I'm supposed to be, but I ain't what I used to be." And that's America. People are still dying to come into America. Just look at the Southern border.

Did the arbitrariness of COVID lockdowns in K-12 education pour gas on the fire of the school choice movement?

Our children weren't learning even before COVID. For example, I went to a majority-black school and I visited the principal. She said to me, "Normally the children come to me two years behind." But then she says, "Not only are they two years behind, but as a result of COVID policies shutting our schools down, the kids are now four years behind." She threw her hands in the air. She asked me, "What am I supposed to do? How do I help these children?"

The beauty of ESAs is that it will reduce class size as well. So, yes, some children will not be there. Two-thirds of the money stays. But now we've also reduced class size. It's a win-win.

What's the likelihood that legislation that changes how Virginia funds education will pass?

As they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. Slavery was not gone in a day. We are saying we're not going back. And yes, it's going to take a small miracle. It's going to take a miracle because there are people who have nefarious agendas and they're using the suffering of black people to further keep us apart and at each other's throats.

I am hoping that it is God's will that things change. It's already started because there are so many black parents, for example, who came to the education subcommittee who begged and pleaded for change to happen so that they could have the money to send their children to school. And every single Democrat on that subcommittee looked them in the eye and voted no, including the ones who send their children to private school. So their eyes are opening.

It's going to be a tough fight. It's one worth having. We are going to keep in the fight until the parents get to make that choice.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.