There’s a pretty good article in Sunday’s edition of The State newspaper that highlights the school choice issue from the perspective of the Black community’s attempt to improve student achievement and educational attainment. The strongest part of the article is its multi-perspective view; its assessment of the political calculations of the people involved and how the legislative alliances are fluid based on what people perceive will get better education for kids. Another strength of the piece is its recognition that school choice is part of the education reform debate and that it’s an enduring issue of doing what’s right for the children.
Unfortunately, in what seems to be a genuine attempt to be fair, the author Rodney Burris prints some descriptions of school choice which are factually inaccurate.
At several points in the article, Burris succumbs to the line that school choice is “putting money into private schools.” No. No, no, a thousand times no.
School choice means that money (read: choice) goes to parents. Parents can choose a public school; they can choose home schooling; they can choose tutoring; and, yes, they can choose independent or church-based schools.
In fact, in order for school choice to be legal under the First Amendment—according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—it must be “true private choice.” In other words, it would be illegal if the government were funneling money directly to private schools.
School choice means parents choose schools. Schools compete to provide the best education based on quality. As schools compete to see which can best satisfy the parents (e.g., provide the best education) the general level of education is increased. Most importantly, the money follows the child. Now certain people say that this means that public schools will lose money. First of all, this is not exactly a vote of confidence in our public school, is it? If they can only keep people in by denying them other options or forcing them to stay in schools they wouldn’t choose, well, what does that say? Personally, I do not think that public schools would go under if parents have a choice. Sure, some schools which aren’t performing up to par would lose a lot of students. Then they would improve (or the kids would go to a different, better public school). Second, since school choice proposals are all less expensive than current public school spending per pupil, every choice plan leaves behind a “dividend” which could be reinvested in public schools.
The bottom line is this: let’s banish the ugly and inaccurate phrase “public money for private schools.” Every time you see that phrase, it’s a lie or a gross error. A more accurate phrase to describe vouchers is “public money for parents.” (And if the legislature goes for tuition tax credits, there’s no public money at all. Instead, existing tax liabilities are directed to give parents new options for their child’s education.)