Educational choice: Only a win for students who attend private schools

“Educational Choice.” It sounds like an innocent idea. However, it is really only a win for parents of students who attend private schools.

The Idaho Constitution requires the Legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” While there are clearly concerns statewide about how well Idaho has maintained those schools, the state has definitely developed a variety of schools in that system.

Parents already have a variety of choices for how to educate their children in public schools: traditional, on-line charter, in-person charter, career technical education, magnet schools, alternative schools, and even advanced opportunities to receive college credit while still in high school. The only addition to this list with the “school choice” movement is that students who attend private schools might receive money to cover their tuition. Proponents of this concept use the phrase “the money should follow the child” to justify their thinking.

But money currently does follow the child – when they attend public schools. The real beneficiaries of the school choice movement are families who have already chosen private school – families that can afford those options. And rural areas in Idaho have little access to such choice.  There are only a few areas of the state that have access to private school options. To allow “school choice” and help a select few pay private school tuition is unfair to rural schools and those hard-working people who live there but can’t take advantage of such an option.

Public schools are held accountable to the public. Elected school boards oversee them, and the schools report to the State of Idaho. Unlike public schools, private schools have no accountability to the public. They are not required to comply with any laws or rules related to what their classes and curricula look like. Nor are they required to serve all students.

Private schools can deny admission to students for whatever reason they choose. This means that, even in more affluent urban areas where a private school is present, there will be students who have physical or academic challenges and would be unable to attend a private school in their area because the school won’t accept them.

Whatever term is used to describe the concept of “the money following the child” – voucher, “school choice”, “education savings accounts” – the concept moves precious tax dollars away from public school classrooms. Those classrooms serve every child. When a child leaves the school system, fixed costs such as teacher salaries, utilities, and transportation don’t go away. If money is given to families that already are sending their children to private schools, it reduces the funds available to support our public school systems.

Proponents can throw around a variety of statistics and numbers in an attempt to justify school choice. However, they ignore the chronic underfunding of Idaho schools that has been going on for decades. Education savings accounts, school choice, vouchers – whatever you want to call it – the concept creates inequity among public schools. While the idea is often explained as a way to give financial support for low-income families to access “higher quality” education options, research on such programs across the US tell a different story. They are most often used by higher-income families – who already send their children to private schools.

The additional funds approved by the Legislature during the special session will be a much-needed infusion into a system that has been stretched thin. The governor’s proposed investment in education will be an additional investment in Idaho’s children. Let’s not dilute those investments by redirecting funds toward private schools that don’t have public accountability.

 Cyndi teaches sixth grade ELA at Moscow Middle School, in Moscow, Idaho, and is in her 25th year teaching in a public school at the secondary level. She currently serve as co-president of the Moscow Education Association.

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