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Emancipating Education: School Choice

NH taxpayers pay more per pupil than private schools spend, for an inferior education. Why not give the money back to the parents, and let them choose their child's school?

If it were possible to buy education, the US would be the second-smartest place on Earth. According to the 2009 OECD figures, we spend more per pupil than any nation in the world except Switzerland. The US spent an average of $149,000 for the K-12 education of every 2009 public high school graduate.

Unfortunately “education” is not something that you can ship around by the ton, the kilowatt-hour, or even the dollar. According to the most recent PISA report, US students placed 25th out of the 34 OECD countries in math. Finland, which came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math, spends 30% less than the US.

Only 77.5% of US students even graduate from high school. West European high school graduation rates average around 80-90%, and that doesn’t count the many students that enter industrial or banking apprenticeship programs. (Finland’s graduation rate is 93 %.)

Just to demonstrate conclusively that money can’t force children to learn, the Washington DC school district spent $28,170 per pupil in 2009. The DC test scores and graduation rate (around 56% according to a recent paper) are far worse than the national average.

However, spending less money can work… as long as it is used to give parents and students a choice in schools. There is a successful voucher program in DC which provides $7500 to students for private school tuition.  Students in the program achieved a graduation rate of 91%, far higher than the national average. (The Obama administration campaigned to end vouchers in DC, but was defeated by support from the Washington Post and congressional members who reauthorized the successful program.)

It’s not widely known, but many private schools are much cheaper than public schools. To use my home state as an example, in 2009 (the most recent year listed on the NH Dept. of Education web site) New Hampshire spent $14,549.61 per pupil. By now the figure will be closer to $15,500.

People assume that private schools cost more because wealthier parents tend to use them. They are forgetting that the private-school parents have to pay for both public school taxes and private school tuition. Looking around NH, I find that many private school tuitions are far lower than the public schools’ cost:

Among secular schools, in 2010 the Well School charged $7,360 for grades 1-4, $8,800 for grades 5-8. Monadnock Waldorf School is now $10,000 for grades 1-8. The Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton costs $12,160 for grades 1-8.

Then checking religious schools, Pioneer Junior Academy charges $3700 for grades 9-12. Trinity Christian Academy in Peterborough is $3,100 for grades 5-8, $3,400 for grades 9-12. St. Joseph Regional in Keene charges $4,164 for parish members and a bit over $5000 for regular tuition. Few denominational schools charge even half what public schools cost.

This single fact is the invisible elephant in the educational debate. Most people simply have no idea what their schools cost, because they don’t pay directly. If every supporter of school choice simply included the per-student cost of the public schools in every op-ed and letter to the editor, the level of debate would be far higher. We have allowed the public schools to chant that “they are short of money” for far too long. The fact is that the public schools have plenty of money to run good schools. They just don’t know how.

So there is no budgetary excuse to shortchange our children. Even if every parent sent their child to private school (which is unlikely) at taxpayer expense, it would actually save money. Our concern should be strictly about education quality, and finding the right school and mode of education for each child.

Why Not Vouchers?

So why not just divide up the education budget, send every parent a check, and let them spend it? Parents could choose the school that will let their child succeed. Parents, after all, have their child’s interests closer to their heart than does anyone else. Whether their child goes to public or private school, the tuition money should follow the child, not some arbitrary bureaucratic boundary.

According to the Heritage Foundation backgrounder “School Choice in America 2011”: “Nine states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs: Colorado (Douglas County), Florida (special needs), Georgia (special needs), Indiana, Louisiana (New Orleans and special needs), Ohio (Cleveland, Ed Choice, special needs, and Autism scholarships), Oklahoma (special needs), Utah (special needs), Wisconsin (Milwaukee and Racine County), and Washington, D.C.”

Education-establishment opponents of vouchers claim that allowing parents to choose religious schools violates the separation of church and state. (Apparently being forced to send their children to secular schools doesn’t violate the rights of religious people, for some reason). The US Supreme Court decided in favor of vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. The court stated that vouchers are Constitutional as long as the money is paid directly to parents and not to schools, and as long as there are secular schools available.

However, some state constitutions, including New Hampshire’s, have provisions to protect taxpayers from being forced to support “religious” schools (once again completely ignoring the problem of taxpayers with religious beliefs being forced to support irreligious schools). Implementing vouchers would require Constitutional amendments in many states… unless proponents were willing to discriminate against religious parents of all denominations.

There is a fear among school choice supporters that if we first give the money to the state (i.e. to politicians) and let the state dole it back to the parents, the politicians will interfere with the parents’ choices. As with food stamps, the money will come with strings and limitations….  just the opposite of what makes for innovation. The solution to both the legal and bureaucratic barriers lies in tax credits.

Tax Credits: Education’s Emancipation Proclamation

Tax credits avoid separation of church and state legal issues, as the money goes directly from the parent’s paycheck to the school. According to the 2011 Heritage report, “nine states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—offer education tax credits.”

“Five states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Minnesota—offer tax deductions to reduce their state income-tax liabilities by taking deductions on education-related expenses, including private-school tuition.”

This year New Hampshire will try to become the 10th tax-credit state under a bill supported by State Representative JR Hoell. Hopefully Patch readers will support the NH Liberty Alliance and help them push this bill through.

According to the US Department of Education, over 25% of US children already have access to limited school choice. As of 2007 (the most recent year available on the NCES website), 16 percent of grade 1-12 students attend a public school other than their assigned school. Nine percent go to faith-oriented private schools and 3 percent to secular private schools. There are also roughly three percent in home schools according to the NCES.

Overseas, many nations with more successful schools already have more choice-oriented systems. Sweden has nationwide public school choice. Finland leaves schools entirely to local control, creating more room for innovation.

Choice drives innovation and experimentation. And just as in any other field, the absence of choice (aka competition) leads to stagnation and failure. Letting parents, rather than politicians, choose where to spend their children’s tuition money will drive that competition.

The question is not whether we can “afford” school choice. The question is how we can justify denying school choice to any American child.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Seamus Carty January 06, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Milwaukee is an example of vouchers working well. The program has been in place for a long time (1990) and the parents have made their choices on their kids education without having to worry about the cost. The citizens of Milwaukee appear to approve as they have elected officials who support the program. The only thing preventing this is the teachers unions and the Democrat politicians they fund. In MA, the teachers unions contribute $2 million to Deval Patrick's campaign for governor in 2006. That is $2 million out of the $9 million he raised. Follow the money...
Jane Dewey February 18, 2012 at 05:12 PM
I think it's very telling who is against parents and who is for parents. The Education establishment continues to protect their turf at the expense of parents and children. Until we realize they are only concerned about their power and funding and NOT the children or the parents, we will lose every time. I'm thinking more parents are starting to wake up and realize that the Ed. Establishment only cares about their own selfish power and funding!

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