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We're not in Kansas anymore: Dispelling the myths about school choice once and for all

By Nancy Salvato
web posted October 31, 2005

Bob Sigman, Opinion Editor of The Johnson County Sun (KS), has a problem with the idea that, "State-financed vouchers could be used by students to attend the school of their choice, public or private." He believes that, "This would open the way to state support of private schools, breaking down the traditional barrier between church and state." What Mr. Sigman and all the other anti school choice advocates should know is that the Supreme Court ruled in 2002, "that a neutral program that neither favors nor disfavors religion, vouchers directed by the private, independent choices of parents do not constitute state support or endorsement of religion."

Unfortunately, this myth and many others influenced Congressional policy makers to vote down the Family Education Reimbursement Act (FERA) proposal – sponsored by Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-LA). This proposal would have provided needed relief and parental choice options for the 372,000 students displaced by hurricane Katrina by allowing them to enroll in a school of their parents choice for the 2005-06 school year.

The Wall Street Journal considered FERA the best proposal because it would have circumvented the education bureaucracy that makes it difficult to provide immediate relief to families in need. Perhaps the fiscal conservatives that voted down the measure weren't aware that, "Because of bureaucracy, two of every five tax dollars raised for schools do not even make it to the classroom."

Legislators should be reminded that private schools are operated more cheaply than public schools. Just compare the average private school tuition, $4,689.00 to the average cost of educating a student in public school at $8,830.00. Each child educated outside the public school system saves the state $3,535.00. When the money follows the child it saves tax payer dollars.

The idea that families would have been allowed to choose the best school – public, private, or charter –assuredly raised the hackles of those who fear the program's success would serve as a catalyst for more school choice advocates to demand school choice be made available to all families who might be interested in private school options. The reality is that tax payers finance vouchers just as they do public schools. Some taxpayers would rather see their children attend private schools. Why should they have to pay twice?

Vouchers create competition among public and private schools. Public schools would be forced to improve or they would lose enrollment. Studies done in Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, Maine & Vermont provide evidence that school choice does help public schools perform better.

Another myth perpetuated by Mr. Sigman, that true comparisons between public and private school cannot be made until the playing field is leveled is simply not accurate. He relies on the argument that, "Private schools do not have to provide special education services." Yet, as reported in the June 2005 School Choice Advocate, parents of children diagnosed with learning disabilities do send their children to private schools in order to take advantage of smaller, more focused learning environments which can improve academic performance and self confidence. Utah just passed a voucher bill specifically aimed at "special needs" children which will allow them to take advantage of private schools with specialized curriculum that meets the needs of those with particular learning disabilities.

Sigman bemoans the fact that, "Public schools must negotiate employment contracts with teachers, private schools do not. That can result in higher costs for salaries and other benefits." The FERA proposal simply tried to work around the education establishment by disposing of the layers upon layers of education bureaucracy that drives costs up and instead suggested working with an independent contractor to expediently and cost efficiently meet the demands of displaced families and the schools which accommodate their educational needs.

Although private schools are not required to be accredited by the state, most have stringent curriculum standards. If a private school does not perform it will fail because students are not compelled to attend an underperforming school. This means that teachers must be highly qualified and exert the effort required for success. Lower salaries do not deter all good teachers from working in private school environments because there are less behavioral issues and more administrative supports. Students are expected to meet the curriculum demands which make them eligible for admission to four year colleges.

"If the state starts funding private schools through vouchers, Vratil warns [in Sigman's OpEd], "there will be strings attached… Inevitably, the state will impose education requirements on private schools similar to those that govern public schools." Walberg and Bast say that this doesn't have to happen if language included as part of a constitutional amendment establishes, "that the autonomy of private schools is in the public interest and that all regulations affecting private schools are "frozen" at their pre-voucher levels." Regulatory bodies will need to have their "membership equally balanced between government and private school interests." They suggest other ways to combat this possibility, as well.

It is fiscally irresponsible to allow myths and irrational fears to influence the decisions made by those elected to represent us. We the people need to express our dissatisfaction with the status quo educational practices that leave some children behind and embrace the power of the free market to drive the quality of education up.

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2005

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