On School Choice

Today is the birthday of Milton Friedman, an economist whose ideas had great influence in the conservative economic policies of Ronald Reagan. While he died in 2006, his name has lived on in his Foundation for Educational Choice, which celebrates this day every year.

This morning, there was an event held in Overland Park by the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI), and the MainStream Coalition attended. The speaker was Virginia Walden Ford, a board member of the Friedman Foundation, and a twenty-plus year advocate for school choice. Her story is compelling, she started in 1995 just looking for a good education for her young son, working two jobs, amidst poor schools and neighborhoods in Washington, DC. She organized, fought, strove, worked hard and eventually succeeded in her mission, and we commend her for that. These are the qualities we revere among our own members—advocates for education, activists for equal rights, and champions of responsible fiscal policy—and we salute her.

But she is a strong advocate for school voucher programs, programs where Federal or state money that would have gone to public schools is given to private schools to educate children who would otherwise have gone to public schools. This is a short sighted approach to education that has been shown to have poor results, be riddled with opportunity for fraud, and is fraught with ethical concerns. There are certainly success stories, and Ms. Ford had many peppered throughout her talk. But for every success story, there is a story of a child failed by this educational system.

MainStream believes that all children deserve the best education, but that education needs to be available to all children, regardless of their economic situation, geographic situation, or any special needs they may have. A public school system, fully funded by the state, supplemented by Federal funds, that takes into account the varied needs of a statewide population of children, overseen by elected school boards, and yes, accountable to our legislators is within reach. Kansas had a school funding formula that accounted for all of this, was overseen by elected officials, and produced outstanding students, despite unconstitutionally negligent funding by our most conservative legislators.

School choice exists in Kansas right now: charter schools, homeschooling, even scholarship vouchers are available. But it is deceptive of school choice advocates to describe our public school system as failing when they have systematically defunded education for nearly a decade.

In fact, in Kansas, school choice is a trojan horse for the real goal of some extreme conservatives, to defund public education entirely. Kansas taxpayers are currently paying for private college students at religious institutions, and the new scholarship vouchers will provide up to $7 million of Kansas taxes for private and parochial education.

Even Ms Ford suggested that the newest avenue in school choice, education savings accounts, where public tax money is given directly to parents to spend as they like, instead of to schools, lacks necessary accountability. Arizona and Nevada are moving ahead with programs like that, and from the audience today, you could see their desire to see that in Kansas.

Nobody disputes that there are schools that have failed their students, both public and private schools. But the answer is not to defund public education, in favor of spending less and subjecting educational standards to unaccountable private schemes. The answer is to do right by all students, to fully fund public education.

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