Occasionally, I will talk with a parent, donor or stakeholder about Indiana’s school choice program, and sometimes we will have a different opinion on the subject. Usually, the conversation goes something like this:
Parent: Is this whole school choice thing really a good idea?
Me: Absolutely! I can’t begin to describe how important it is to the 320 plus students at LCSS who receive one of these scholarships.
Parent: But it seems like it is just another entitlement program. Are the parents/families of these students as “invested” as other parents?
Me: I understand your concern. With any program, including our own tuition assistance awards, the designers of the program always have to be concerned with promoting a culture that takes our schools for granted, but I do not believe we have that problem for three very important reasons: 1) The scholarship is not designed to cover the entire cost – it generally only covers a portion of the tuition and fees; 2) all families must “buy-in” to our mission; and 3) we work very hard to create a culture where everyone feels welcome, needed, and “invested.” The amounts that families can afford to pay for tuition may differ, but their engagement and personal commitment should not.
Parent: That is good to hear.
The problem with this exchange is that I am never convinced that I really moved anyone away from their original thinking. I sometimes think I should answer it with:
“Absolutely, this school choice law is the first time in over a century that parents have been recognized as essential to the education of their children. It is critical to the survival of a healthy educational system, both public and non-public.”
The difficulty with this answer is that I rarely have time to explain the reasons why school choice is so important. So I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why every parent should support school choice.
SIX REASONS EVERY PARENT SHOULD BE A PROPONENT OF SCHOOL CHOICE.
1) Our government cannot and should not be our children’s proxy parents. School choice recognizes that parents are the primary educators
For centuries, governments have utilized their authority to “help” their citizenry, and more recently since the age of Enlightenment, education has been seen as an important, if not a primary tool governments use to help advance society. For example, in the United States it is seen as a right of all citizenry to receive an education. Many state governments adopted a constitutional provision to support a free education. Indiana’s constitutional provision, Article 8, Section 1 states:
Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.
I think the vast majority of Americans would agree that this makes a lot of sense; BUT as we know, good intentions are not always enough, and no good idea can be realized if bad intentions rule the day. To really understand the present day school choice battle it is important to understand the history of the “Common Schools” movement in the US and Indiana, particularly how the movement affected Catholics and non-Christians.
The term “Common School” came from a movement that took place throughout the mid-nineteenth century and is a term used in many state constitutions. However, the movement was not without controversy. Its history coincides with a large influx of European immigrants, mostly Roman Catholic. Many reacted to this influx with antagonism and violence, as seen, for example, in the Ursuline Convent Riots in Boston and the Philadelphia Nativist Riots. This violence was often connected to the Common School movement.
The Common Schools were promoted by groups like the “Know Nothing” party as a way to turn the immigrants into “Americans.” Unfortunately, for many, the definition of “American” did not include Catholicism, and many children were forced to study versions of the bible that conflicted with their faith.
I am sure many people still remember reading the King James Bible or studying the McGuffey Reader as the practice continued in most public schools until the mid 1960’s when a series of US Supreme Court cases ended those practices.
When a state or federal government can compel its citizenry to send its children to school and then dictate the subjects, lessons, morals and values being taught, the government has a great power over its citizenry – a potentially corrupting amount of power. The kind of power that encourages politics to enter into our classrooms. The kind of power that results in endless controversy over individual rights vs. the rights of the majority. The opportunity to influence our future leaders to the left or to the right, politically speaking, is irresistible. Without school choice, parents run the risk of becoming secondary in the educational and moral upbringing of their children.
School choice legislation is not just another school reform strategy. It is far more fundamental. The bottom line is that school choice reverses a century and a half of failing to recognize parents as the primary educators. There should be no battle over this. There should be no controversy. If parents want to be the primary educators of their children – Every parent should embrace school choice.
2) School choice empowers parents to demand quality education for their children.
Ensuring parents are the primary educators not only makes sense from a fundamental, natural perspective – it also makes good policy. When parents have more choice in finding the school that best fits their child’s needs, they own the choice. When parents own the choice they are more engaged, invested and also have more influence. This equates to more competition and improved performance by all schools, including public schools. While competition may make those of us in education uncomfortable, it is a powerful tool in ensuring we are using resources to their maximum potential. When parents have no choice, they have very little standing to demand much of anything. They are stuck with status quo or worse. If parents want to demand quality education for their children – Every parent should embrace school choice.
3) School choice aligns with Catholic social teaching.
Catholic social teaching teaches us that: 1) parents are the primary educators; and 2) , that we are to have preferential option for the poor. If we believe parents are the primary educators and that income should not remove educational choices we must ensure that there are proper means to provide everyone with this choice regardless of income. While nearly all Catholic schools have robust self-funded student aid programs, they nearly always fall short of need. School choice laws enable Catholic schools and other non-public schools to better fulfill their missions and remain true to their calling to aid and assist low-income families. If parents want help fulfill our Catholic mission and calling – Every parent should embrace school choice.
4) Indiana’s public schools are continuing to grow and thrive.
The vast majority of people, including me, that promote school choice want to see our public schools thrive, and based upon metrics like graduation rates, test scores, AP exam rates, and college attendance, our Indiana public schools are continuing to do great work and are getting better. All of these metrics have improved since school choice was enacted in Indiana. There is no “war” against public schools. Public schools are continuing to grow and thrive. In fact, in Tippecanoe County every public school system is growing and is either contemplating or planning new construction. My hope is that the $474 million increase in Indiana public school funding over the next two years will help alleviate the concern that public schools are under attack. This is not a zero sum game of public vs. non-public. If parents want public schools to continue to grow and thrive – Every parent should embrace school choice.
5) School choice eliminates the need for over-regulation in education.
Nearly every administrator, teacher or parent you talk to these days agrees that there is too much time spent on testing and administration, robbing valuable time from the classroom and educational experiences. However, when there is only a single provider of any product or service there is a much higher likelihood of waste, inefficiency and poor quality. In areas where the government is the sole provider or in industries that are monopolistic in nature, high regulation is often part of the package. However, the more mobility the “consumer” has in a transaction, the more they are in a position to demand quality, demand efficiency and demand a service that best meets their needs. This mobility comes from choices. When families have a choice in schools, they become the regulators – and this method of regulation is far more effective and far less costly to administer. If parents want to see schools that work and reduce the politics of education – Every parent should embrace school choice.
6) Without school choice, fewer and fewer children will be educated in non-public schools, and states will struggle to be able to afford to fund public education at adequate levels.
In the past 30 years enrollment in non-public schools in the United States has dropped from nearly 13% to 10% of school age children. Unchecked, this decline is expected to drop another full percentage in the next five years. According to analysis by Jeff Spalding of the Friedman Foundation, this decline cost taxpayers as much as $222 billion dollars over the past 25 years. The significance of this on public schools is considerable. For example, in Indiana, the expected decline in enrollment of non-public schools would essentially mean that about 10,000 students would move out of non-public schools and back into the public school system in just five years. Average public school state and local expenditures per student in Indiana is about $9,500. That means that school systems and the state would need to come up with another $95 million dollars per year to absorb these students, and this trend would only continue as costs to educate rise and fewer and fewer families could afford the full cost of non-public education. If school choice were to suddenly end this move could be dramatic and abrupt.
In total, there are approximately 100,000 students being educated in Indiana non-public schools. The fact is that, even with Choice Scholarships, these children save the state and local taxpayers well over $750 million dollars per year. The truth is the state cannot afford for this to change. This savings cannot disappear or it jeopardizes the whole system. The state needs non-public school enrollment to continue to grow, because even when the tuition is subsidized by the state, the state and local taxpayers still save money, and it protects the long-term viability of our public school system.
The good news is that School Choice Scholarships and the Tax Credit Scholarship program in Indiana has helped stabilize the decline of non-public school enrollment in Indiana. School choice is working and is protecting this $750 million dollar per year savings. Without school choice, public schools will be under significant pressure to cut spending in the coming decades. If parents want a financially healthy educational system and if the public wants to continue to receive these savings – Every parent should embrace school choice.
So why is it that public schools and public school administrators seem to be so against school choice? The answer is likely complicated, but I believe it has to do with three primary factors:
- Some school reform measures have created challenges and difficulties for both public and non-public teachers and administrators, and school choice is often associated with these other, unrelated reform measures;
- Non-public schools and teachers are not typically affiliated with teacher unions, which can cause non-public schools to be seen as threatening or undesired competition to public school teachers’ unions; and
- School choice has re-empowered parents as the primary educator of their children. This has, in turn, resulted in a loss of bureaucratic power, which is undesirable for some.
If you are a parent and want to ensure that you are the primary educator of your children, that your children have the opportunity for a quality education, that Catholic mission and social teachings are fulfilled, that public education continues to grow and thrive, that the over-regulation and politics of education are reduced, and that the state maintains a financially healthy educational system, then please support school choice with your legislators and in the public forum.