The Shifting Tide in K-12 Education

On Tuesday, March 23, 2013 the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Indiana’s statewide voucher program did not violate the state’s constitution. As a result, the voucher program redirects more than $38 million in state aid from public schools to private schools, with a provision that guarantees at least 10% of a school district’s per pupil amount is returned to the state. This resulted in a savings of around $4.2 million redistributed among all Indiana public schools last year.   The way voucher programs generally work is that states grant families who currently find themselves below the poverty level – less than $40,000 – vouchers or scholarship tax credits, that then gives them the ability to send their children to private charter schools.  According to the American Federation for Children, there is currently 33 private school choice programs spread across 17 states, offering economically disadvantaged families the ability to send their children to schools of their choice.  The Indiana voucher program will grant 9,324 students vouchers during the upcoming school year, which is a major jump from the 3,919 that received a voucher last year.

This is a landmark victory for those who support the school choice movement, as states are moving in the right direction of offering low-income families the choice to send their children to where they believe they will receive the best education. For example, just this month, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama signed tax-credit legislation so that families can take their children out of failing public schools and enroll them in private schools. Furthermore, in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in an effort to circumvent the state legislature that has repeatedly defeated voucher bills, has inserted $2 million into his budget, so low-income children can obtain private school vouchers.

With the tide shifting in the favor of expanding school choice, some states continue to resist instituting voucher systems in their state. For example, states like Minnesota have constitutional clauses in place prohibiting the financing of religious institutions with public money, thereby preventing almost all forms of a voucher system. Also, one cannot forget about powerful teacher unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, who constantly lobby these states to ensure that programs that grant vouchers and scholarship tax credit are terminated.

The main argument used by these unions and charter school opponents is that voucher programs take vital funds from depleted public schools and use them to fund private charter schools that are no better than public schools at academically preparing their students. To validate their claim they use several reports, including the 2009 Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) report, entitled, “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States” that found that only 17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools.

However, studies like the one conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, which received funding from the U.S. Department of Education, found evidence that the charter schools’ impacts were most positive among schools in large, urban areas and among those serving the most disadvantaged students. One example is in New York City, where a 2013 CREDO report found that a typical student in a New York City charter school gains more learning in a year than his or her district school peer. This amounts to about one more month of learning in reading and five more months of learning in math. As a result, charter schools in NYC continue to outperform their district peers when it comes to math and science.

Another example is in Washington, D.C. where charter schools have been a welcome change in the urban community. According to the U.S. Department of Education, D.C. public schools have the lowest graduation rate, at 59%, and in another 2009 report they reported that 11.3 percent of D.C. high school students reported being “threatened or injured” with a weapon while on school property during the previous year – a rate well above the national average. To help address the dual issues of concern among parents – academics and school safety – the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) allowed families who found themselves in the lowest income bracket the ability to send their children to private schools of their choice.  The results have been convincing, as parents feel that they are sending their children to safer schools and their children are performing better academically. In an OSP survey, 92% of parents are very/somewhat happy with the child’s academic progress; 91% of parents are very/somewhat happy with the child’s OSP school. The most important statistic is that 94% of 12th grade students in the program are graduating from high school, a far cry from the 59% rate in the D.C. public school.

While there is no concrete evidence stating whether public or private charter schools are better forms of educational instruction, one thing should remain clear. Every student has the right to receive a quality education, signifying that some students excel attending public schools while others excel attending private charter schools. This is the guiding principle of the school choice movement.  Parents should be given the choice and provided with the opportunity to send their children to schools, either public or private, that they feel will help their children grow academically and socially.

I was fortunate to have attended public secondary schools with great educators that helped foster a learning environment. The same cannot be said for many students across the country. This is why it vital to support those like Governor Mike Pence of Indiana who believes that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school in order to receive a quality education.