(by Shawn Peterson)
May 6, 2015
School choice opponents often argue that creating more options for parents will allow non-public schools to skim the cream of students from public schools, leaving everyone else behind. But a recent study underwritten by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows that a majority of Minnesotans do not agree that school choice is an “us vs. them” issue. Rather, Minnesotans believe that everyone can benefit from more choice in education.
School choice advocacy is not about filling schools with high achievers, or padding the enrollment numbers of non-public schools. The Church’s advocacy for school choice is premised on ensuring that no one’s future be determined by their ZIP code. It is about student well-being — not institutional well-being.
School choice helps disadvantaged kids and promotes social justice by ensuring that everyone has access to educational opportunities. The Church recognizes that parents “who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools” (“Gravissimum Educationis” on Christian education, 1965, Pope Paul VI).
Catholic schools, for example, have a long history of successfully educating those who struggle academically, as well as helping children and families have access to an education they want, often regardless of religious affiliation, academic aptitude or ability to pay.
The Friedman polling shows that quite a few Minnesotans, regardless of political or religious beliefs, agree with the Church that more educational options serve students and strengthen our communities.
Where Minnesotans stand on education choice
Political parties and geography (urban, suburban and rural) were fairly equally represented in Friedman’s March phone polling research. Of those polled, 45 percent supported teacher unions, and 65 percent have a positive view of our state’s public school system, so they did not favor one type of education model over another.
As with every significant poll on education choice that has been conducted in the last several decades, the poll results show Minnesotans overwhelmingly in support of school choice, with most viewing education reform as a top public policy priority.
People were polled on several specific education policies, but two sets of data specifically relate to legislation that the Minnesota Catholic Conference is advocating for: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and Tax Credit Scholarships.
Education Savings Accounts allow parents to deposit their child’s state per-pupil and special education funds in a state-approved and monitored account to be used for education options they believe best suit the needs of their child. When voters were asked about ESAs for students with special needs, four out of five voters (80 percent) approved.
Also surveyed was the Tax Credit Scholarships policy, which would create a framework allowing individuals and corporations to donate funds to non-profit entities that would in turn offer scholarships to qualified students. When asked about this option, 65 percent of Minnesota voters were in favor.
Turning polling into policy
Minnesota voters, by a sizable majority, are in favor of greater school choice options and policies that make those opportunities a reality. To do so requires that government play a role, as indicated in “Gravissimum Educationis”: “Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”
Education choice matters to a great number of individuals and families. Now it is simply a matter of turning this support into action. Continue to talk to community members and legislators about the importance of education choice, including access to non-public schools, as a basic right for families and children.
You can learn more by visiting the Minnesota Catholic Conference website (mncc.org) or the Friedman Foundation’s website (edchoice.org) and clicking on “state research” in the research drop-down menu.
Peterson is associate director for public policy with the Minnesota Catholic Conference.