Domestic and Economic Policy, Education and School Choice, In The News

Editorial: An Argument for School Choice

Published in the

By Daily Press Editorial Board

In the world of business, when one company has a monopoly on the market, there is less incentive to be effective or efficient. Healthy competition, on the other hand, fosters growth and success.

The same can be applied to educational systems.

Providing alternatives that create competition for traditional public schools is but one of the compelling reasons Virginia should consider school choice, a movement that would help parents select the best option for their children’s education, particularly those who are frustrated by declining or stagnant performance at their local schools.

The traditional model, in which government provides everyone with a “free education” generously underwritten by the taxpayers, might be sufficient if school performance were consistently high, most dollars were devoted to direct instruction, and the best teachers were rewarded and the weakest let go.

But that isn’t the case today.

And throwing more money at the problem — which we’ve continued to do even though it hasn’t worked — is impractical due to falling state tax revenues and reductions in federal support.

Many states are by necessity undertaking reforms aimed at correcting the deeply entrenched obstacles to improvement by adopting merit pay and contractual review policies and by reducing non-instructional budgets. Gov. McDonnell has pushed for such improvements in the current legislative session.

Improving efficiency and shoring up quality and accountability at existing schools has to be at the forefront of Virginia’s educational reforms. But school choice could be an important component, as well.

School choice includes a range of options, both public and private. Public school choices include charter schools, magnet schools and open enrollment plans that allow students to choose among multiple schools within a district or region. Private school options include faith-based and other private schools supported by tuition and donations, virtual schools and home schools.

At a town meeting last week hosted by Hampton University, panel members weighed in on why black Americans especially need to support school choice in their communities. While rich families have always had the opportunity to choose private schools, poor families — who are often stuck in the worst-performing schools — don’t have those options.

As the panelists noted, the best way to get at the problem is to break loose from the notion that school funding is for schools; rather, it is for students. In fact, school funding formulas are based on student population, which can lead to an administration’s protective hold on their students instead of encouraging them to go where there needs could be better met.

School vouchers — payments to parents from public tax funds to be used for a child’s education expenses — allow educational decisions to be made on an individual basis instead of one-size-fits-none. Voucher programs can also be tied to stipulations against discrimination and even include needs-based funding ranges. Arguments that voucher payments to private schools violate the First Amendment and similar state constitutional provisions have been successfully countered with reasoning such as (1) the private schools are not all faith-based and (2) payments are made to parents, not to schools.

And despite the fears that less funding will be available for public schools if vouchers are used, systems that have explored vouchers, such as in Milwaukee, are finding them to be a potentially more efficient way of educational delivery. Since vouchers are typically less than the actual per-student allotment and overhead costs are reduced, schools can actually save money by implementing them.

Going forward, Virginia should continue to monitor and explore the options for school choice, including evaluating the success of existing voucher programs both in terms of costs and performance.

An important caveat: The issues and arguments do not and should not “belong” to any single special-interest group, religion, race, geographic region or political party.  The school choice movement can benefit everyone.

School choice, when combined with significant reform of our public schools, is one way to accomplish a major shift in our dysfunctional educational system. It’s time for a serious look.

Copyright © 2012, Newport News, Va., Daily Press

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