Why School Choice Matters

  • Zoe S. Erler
  • May 31, 2011
  • Education Reform, Sagamore Perspectives
Why School Choice Matters

On Thursday, May 5, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed into law Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 575, which could prove to be the most extensive school reform measures the nation has seen to date. Among other provisions, the new bill expands schools vouchers to all low-income and lower middle-class families in Indiana,[i] makes the system more friendly to the creation of new charter schools, institutes only merit-based pay for teachers, and limits collective bargaining. 

To learn more about what the bill really promises, Sagamore chatted with Associate Fellow Robert Enlow, who runs the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

This bill has been called the country’s most expansive school reform bill. What does this bill do? And what does it not do?

 In the process of making sausage, nothing comes out looking perfect.

It’s a statewide voucher program that allows middle-income families to get opportunities they normally wouldn’t have. What the federal government defines as poverty in America is not the same as what it takes to survive and thrive in this country. This bill will really break down the idea that zip code determines the education of a child.

It cannot be underestimated that this is a voucher bill statewide. Very few voucher programs around the country are not limited to kids from low-income families or with special needs. For example, in Ohio and Florida, vouchers are limited to students in failing schools. 

Currently, the bill provides $4,500 per K-8 child to be redirected from a public school to a private school. Do you think those provisions are generous enough that families will jump at the chance to apply?

First of all, if the experience of other state voucher programs can teach us anything, it’s that these programs grow slowly over time. As word of mouth spreads, you begin to see the growth of these programs.

It’s a very high voucher amount. At this point, only Wisconsin beats Indiana in the amount allotted per child. As funded by taxpayers, state tuition at Indiana Public Schools is around $9,100. The average tuition for private school is between $4,300 and $5,000. That’s far lower than people think. For high school students, you get up to 90 percent of state school support toward private school.

The voucher bill also dramatically expands the state tax credit scholarship from $2.5 million to $5 million. It also allows a child who was receiving a tax credit scholarship to receive a voucher the next school year. So private schools can concentrate their scholarships on kindergartners and create a pipeline for those children to continue receiving education the following years on a voucher. Essentially, that establishes a tax credit deduction for kids who are already in private schools.

We are going to do everything we can to max out this program the first year. We’re trying to get kids enrolled for fall of 2011 in the beginning of the summer of 2011. Most private schools already have their lists sorted out. 

The second bill focuses on classroom performance. Do you think test scores are a good metric for gauging true performance?

They are a metric, whether we like it or not. They will continue to be used in the real world for some time. Do I think they’re a perfect metric? Absolutely not!

There are two types of private schools in Indiana, and state-accredited schools account for 50 percent of them. Those 50 percent serve 75 percent of the students in the private school student universe. That’s important because all of those schools would be required to test anyway. They’d be required to do this even without the voucher program.

Second, it’s a voluntary program, so no one has to participate. But for those who do, it’s kind of like telling the schools, “Show your parents how you’re doing.” 

From a big picture perspective, why is school choice so important?

There is that basic sense that a stable and democratic society is not achievable unless you have an educated citizenry. School choice is the only way to bust the monopoly that we have. It’s the only way to narrow the way between the “haves and the have nots.”

And I don’t mean about schooling; I mean about learning. The studies show that students who use a voucher graduate at a rate 21 percent higher than kids who don’t get vouchers, at least in DC.

Am I worried about government intrusion? Absolutely. But if you don’t like it, get in the game. Don’t stay on the sidelines. 

How did you personally get passionate about school choice?

I was a social worker, and I got a degree in liberation theology. My passion is to say that our society can be great if we break down the barriers that separate us as people.

I got lucky. I happened to be born a certain way—white from a wealthy family. But to me it’s unacceptable that the roll of the dice determines my future.

School choice is the perfect nexus between economic liberty and social justice. It is almost the most economically moral viewpoint you can have.

1 For the first year, the number of vouchers will be limited to 7,500, and then to 15,000 the second year. The following year, it will be expanded to all families in Indiana.

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