School choice legislation enacted across U.S., but sputters locally

All parents, no matter the size of their pocketbook or where they live, should have the opportunity to send their children to a quality school that best serves their needs.

Fortunately, this has been a banner legislative year across the nation for expanding parental choice in education. Unfortunately, Minnesota families will not be among those celebrating expanded school choice options.

No fewer than 13 states have enacted school choice legislation for disadvantaged kids in 2011, and as of this writing, more than two dozen states still had legislation pending. In June alone, Louisiana, Ohio and North Carolina enacted innovative new choice programs while Indiana and Wisconsin dramatically expanded existing programs.

Earlier this year, Florida, Georgia, Colorado and Oklahoma created or expanded tuition tax credit programs. Tennessee, Maine and Utah were states that instituted other school choice reforms. Even in the nation’s capital, Congress revived the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for poor families that faced stiff opposition from the teachers’ union in the District of Columbia.

Opponents prevail

So where was our state during this bumper harvest of school choice?

Hope was dashed for thousands of poverty families in chronically under-performing public schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth and across Minnesota during the abbreviated special session when an enrollment options scholarship and tuition tax credit were removed from finance bills.

After a promising 2011 regular session, purveyors of the status quo prevailed when two parental choice bills enacted by the Legislature were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

School choice opponents often use scare tactics to perpetuate the false assertion that parental choice initiatives drain funding from public schools and represent an abandonment of public education. Yet, empirical data from 10 research studies indicate the contrary.

According the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice report by Greg Forster, Ph.D., entitled “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers” (March 2011): “[E]mpirical evidence consistently shows that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and public schools. In addition to helping the participants by giving them more options, there are a variety of explanations for why vouchers might improve public schools as well. The most important is that competition from vouchers introduces healthy incentives for public schools to improve.”

This year’s nationwide school choice gains are a major step forward, due in large part to growing bipartisan support. But there is much work still to be done. The ultimate objective is to let resources follow the children to whatever school their parents want them to attend.

Parents are main educators

Catholic tradition has long recognized the important role of parents as the primary educators of their children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expressly states: “As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental. As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise” (#2229, italics in original).

The Minnesota Catholic Conference has advocated for public policies that affirm the vital role parents play in their children’s education by giving them meaningful choices in where and how their children are educated.

Catholic social teaching on the preferential option for the poor also requires that families of modest means not be denied this choice because of their economic status. Educational opportunities should be a reality for all children, not just for those whose families can afford to pay for them.

Our hope for the future is that Minnesota will soon rejoin the ranks of school choice states and reclaim its once prestigious ranking as an innovator in K-12 education and a leader in parental school choice.

Peter Noll is the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s education director.

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