As with most issues people are either for or against, and school choice is no different. Regardless of where one stands though, the question is “Do states really offer school choice?” Ponder that for a minute by considering the various programs states currently offer.
What are the Choices?
First, let’s be factual. School choice actually consists of just three options: public, private, and homeschool. Legislated programs such as charters, scholarships, vouchers, tax credits, or other nuanced versions are almost entirely devoted to and fall under the authority of public education. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the public system has dominion over existing programs.
So, what are the types of programs parents have access to for educating their children? This is where educational choice meets reality. Each state has its own constitutional authority to legislate programs they believe will meet the needs of their citizens. That’s why one state allows charter schools while another state does not. Same goes for scholarships and tax credit programs. Each is particular to the state and what the government determines to be fair and reasonable and will benefit the state. Wait – I thought our elected officials were to ensure a quality education is provided for ALL children! Just a thought.
Now don’t get me wrong – I believe the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives authority to the states and I would prefer it remain that way. The federal government should not be involved in education, primarily because it’s silent with regards to education and therefore not constitutionally based. In fact, states’ rights allow each state to frame an education system specific to their population, which further increases this notion of choice based on the freedom to move from one state to another.
A second point to consider is most school choice programs are divisive because they segregate the population. For example, scholarships are primarily relegated to children with disabilities or children that fall within a low socio-economic income status. Also, the value for many of the students in these programs may require significant additional resources in order to meet the standard definition of a quality education. But what about families who don’t have a child with a disability, or their family income is $100 above the qualifying threshold? Do they have choice? What is the solution for the child that’s barely getting by academically? The most common single option is for the child to attend their zip code assigned traditional public school regardless of quality, resources, or safety.
Data and Dollars
After digesting the choice information above, let’s point out the fact that public funds are used to educate the majority of students in our constitutional republic. As 2020 data reports there are 130,930 public schools, which serve 90% or 50.8 million students in elementary and secondary schools. Also, educationdata.org reports the average per pupil cost is $12,624 with schools spending $640 billion which makes it clear there’s already a large sum of tax dollars doled out for education.
Considering what is spent on education, what is the quality our students are receiving? Let’s look at the primary standard of measure: test scores. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports the percentage of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders that are at or above proficient. What does proficient mean? Here’s NAEP’s definition:
“This level represents solid academic performance for each NAEP assessment. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”
Looking at the latest reported scores, which are from 2019, the percentage of students that are at or above proficiency are as follows:
Notice that no subject is above 50% at any grade level. Also notice that the proficiency level in all subjects except reading decreases with each grade level. Given the lockdown of most public schools in March 2020, what will the next reported test scores reflect? Parents need to be asking themselves if their child is receiving a quality education in K-12 public schools.
What’s the Solution?
Since 1992, when the City Academy of St. Paul, Minnesota opened its doors as the first publicly funded, privately run charter school, teachers and parents have been seeking affordable alternatives to the status quo of K-12 education. The academy was created by teachers that knew schools were failing students. They banded together to create a high school for students in the inner city where high poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness abound.
Though the number of charter schools has increased to over 7,500 in the last several decades, many have wait lists due to capacity constraints. In addition, not all states authorize charters and those that do employ ways to discourage expansion or deny applications. Regardless of the barriers this is one area where choice advocates have made significant impacts. They have worked tirelessly to encourage legislators to allow programs to support student learning needs.
Yet, with all the perceived options the only real solution to ensure educational freedom is to have the money follow the child. This option would allow parents the opportunity to direct their tax dollars towards an education that meets their child’s needs.
Currently the closest choice to money following the child is Education Savings Accounts (ESA), which was first legislated in Arizona in 2011. EdChoice.org reports there are an additional seven states that have since passed ESA legislation. This is a huge help to families in those eight states, but the unfortunate reality is each state frames the program as they choose. For example, the government dictates that only certain families can apply, only a percentage of the per pupil cost is allocated, funds can only be used for certain services and supplies, or some combination of requirements. Again, a program that has the tendency to segregate and prevent the parents from choosing the best learning environment for their child.
Children are individuals and each one requires different supports, tools, stimulation, and experiences that help them thrive and become successful citizens. This is why legislators must move away from proposing programs that slice-and-dice the student population and provide REAL educational freedom for ALL children. Give parents the tax dollars so they can choose the best educational environment for their child.
Karen Hiltz, a speaker and author from Sebastian, FL, is a Navy veteran, retired federal procurement professional and former professor of business and public school board member. She has a BA and MBA in Management and an EdD in Leadership Studies.
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
City Academy of St. Paul Minnesota
Education Savings Accounts (ESA)