Why would anyone believe depleting funds public schools need by giving public money to private schools would improve public education. We are told our public schools are failing. We accept that without question. Why? We all were educated, got jobs, raised families following the American dream believing education is the path to achieve it. Have we stopped believing that? The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” contributed to the assertion that our public education is failing. The federal government next came with the passage of “No Child Left Behind.” Federal dollars were intended to focus on ensuring that states and schools boost the performance of certain groups of students, such as English-language learners, students in special education, and poor and minority children, whose achievement, on average, trailed their peers. Have we diagnosed our public-school problem correctly and do our proposed solutions help to make our public schools better?
Idaho public schools have been underfunded for decades. Education savings accounts, school choice, vouchers – whatever you want to call it – these suggestions to improve public education create inequity among public schools. While these ideas are often explained as a way to give financial support for low-income families to access “higher quality” education options, research on such programs across the US tells a different story. They are most often used by higher-income families. Idaho’s expenditure per pupil is the lowest of the 50 states. A recent legislative report disclosed that the State of Idaho would have to spend over a billion dollars to bring school facilities up to “good” condition. In its 2005 ruling, the Court said this was the responsibility of the State, not of local school districts. If we start dishing out taxpayer money to parents who wants their kids to experience private or religious schooling, how could the State possibly ensure that each family is properly using the taxpayer money? The education savings account proposal would have virtually no accountability.
Several “southern states have failed to insure equitable public education funding, resulting in some of the most underfunded schools in the nation. Moreover, they fail to target funds towards those students who need additional supports. Almost all of them are funneling scarce education funding to private schools through voucher programs.” If “voucher programs divert scarce public funds to unaccountable and discriminatory private institutions,” how does that help? A study of private school voucher programs by the EdWeek Research Center revealed that “few require private schools to follow standard policies used to ensure transparency and accountability in the nation’s public schools.” For example, less than a third publicly report student results on state tests or high school graduation rates.
Transferring public funds to private education has a few different names. We hear of vouchers, education savings accounts, school choice, the concept moves precious tax dollars away from public school classrooms. Catchy phrases and one liners are easy but not necessarily beneficial.
The most promising policy solution to the current tendencies for public education lies in public sector choice. Massachusetts has the highest rank for public schools across the country. The quality of education is exceptional, and safety is also high. It ranked highest in math and reading test scores out of all states. The school choice law in Massachusetts allows families to enroll their children in public schools in communities other than the city or town in which they reside. Tuition is paid by the sending school district to the receiving district. The tax dollars support public schools but in effect have public schools competing against each other necessitating improvement to keep the better students.
We know that public schools receive insufficient funding. For Idaho this has been a long-term problem even though the courts have said it is a state responsibility. This year alone the State of Idaho has a 1.4-billion-dollar surplus in collected tax revenue. Rather than improve school funding this money will become a tax rebate to individuals as it has in past years. Our legislators do this to enhance their image and electability with the voters. In effect this is a cowardly political act of transferring funding responsibility from the state to the local level. Local officials being closest to the people receive the brunt of the criticism for requiring levies. This is unfair and it’s wrong. The basis of our democracy rests on our belief that the public will be educated to read, think, discuss, evaluate, and participate in decision-making for themselves and our society. That will not happen unless we have a well and equitably funded public education system that is the best in the world.