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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Jayne: Private schools get public funds

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

With a new school year beginning, a little thought exercise is in order. Because, goodness knows, we need to do some thinking about public education.

For some, the all-encompassing answer is that “public schools are failing our children,” which seems to be an overly broad generalization. And whether or not those schools are the nightmarish inferno that critics imagine them to be, one of the more intriguing debates surrounds school vouchers.

More than a dozen states have some sort of voucher program, allowing students to use the funds from their school district to help pay for private school.

The argument in favor of vouchers is intuitive: By competing for students against private schools, public schools will improve. It forces them to better tend to the needs of students and parents. It forces them to be more accountable for the education and the environment they are providing for students.

Indeed, competition is the foundation of our capitalistic system. A business succeeds or fails in the marketplace based on the quality of its products and its customer service.

But there are problems with treating school children like so many widgets. And there are problems with spending public money for the benefit of private schools.

One is the canard that vouchers result in better outcomes. As Joshua Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University, wrote in an essay for Time magazine this year: “As an analyst who has studied these and other forms of school choice for nearly two decades, I’m in a good position to give an answer. And based on data from existing voucher programs, the answer is almost unambiguously negative.”

For students who leave public schools for private schools, Cowen writes: “Although small, pilot-phase programs showed some promise two decades ago, new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research.”

Of course, you can find advocates with their own data suggesting vouchers improve outcomes. The point is that allowing public money to flow to private schools is not necessarily a panacea.

Therein lies the problem — this is public money. Advocates say funding should be allowed to follow the students, that parents should be able to take the money spent on their children and spend it how they see fit.

In a new Arizona program, students can receive between $6,000 and $9,000 in an Empowerment Scholarship Account. That is roughly equivalent to the $8,770 spent per student in the state. Using that model, Washington students would receive $14,000 in vouchers, removing that funding from the local public school.

But guess what? Not all of that is their money. It comes from them and their neighbors and the rich people on the hill in their school district and the poor people living in shacks in their district.

Statewide, according to the Department of Revenue, 56 percent of property tax is earmarked for schools. That means a property owner would have to pay $25,000 in taxes for $14,000 of it to go toward schools. Not many people in our community have a bill that hefty.

Instead, nearly every student in Clark County has their public education subsidized by taxpayers. (Full disclosure: My kids have attended private schools, and I don’t think my neighbors should help pay for it.) That’s because our state so values public education that it is expressly the “paramount duty” of the Legislature.

As Benjamin Barber writes in the book “Strong Democracy”: “Vouchers transform what ought to be a public question (‘What is a good system of public education for our children?’) into a personal question (‘What kind of school do I want for my children?’). It … encourages them to dissociate the generational ties that bind them to their own children from the lateral ties that bind them (and their children) to other parents and children.”

And as a new school year begins, that is something worth thinking about.