Tough fight for school reform


By Shawn Dobbs, Contributor


Education in the United States is a hot topic lately.  There is no question that American students are falling behind in test scores compared to their international counterparts. There are many theories regarding the causes and just as many regarding potential solutions to this problem. One of the ideas most debated right now is the concept of reducing the federal government’s role in education while increasing the parents’ role through school choice.

Traditionally, the school kids attend is determined by where they live. Property taxes fund the school districts, and those who live within that district go to the school in that district. This method is called into question, however, when it becomes evident that some schools are better than others. Some schools better prepare children for life, some schools produce students who achieve higher test scores and some schools have higher graduation rates than others. Thus the question arises, shouldn’t parents have the right to send their children to the best schools available? Why should some students suffer at the hands of incompetent teachers, underfunded districts and a poor curriculum just because they don’t live in a particular neighborhood? Open enrollment, private schools, charter schools and voucher systems all strive to provide a solution to this dilemma.

Nebraska is not exactly on the forefront of education reform, though our state does have an open enrollment policy designed to make it relatively easy for students to attend schools outside of their district. Parents are responsible for transportation, and there is a cap on the number of out-of-district students schools will accept each year.

What about private schools? Our tax dollars fund the public school system, but what if we don’t want our children to go to public school? Is it fair that we should have to pay for tuition at the private school that our kids attend and still pay for tuition at the public school that they don’t? This is where the voucher system comes into play. States such as Indiana, Louisiana, Wisconsin, California and even the District of Columbia have had much success with voucher programs.

In a voucher system parents still pay taxes which fund public education. However, parents receive an education tax credit, or voucher, that can be used to cover the cost of enrolling their children in whichever school they choose, regardless of district or neighborhood. This gives parents the choice to send their kids to better schools and empowers families to make better decisions about their child’s education.

In Washington, D.C. graduation rates for voucher students rose by 20 percent and reading skills increased significantly, all at only 25 percent of the cost of public school. In D.C. the cost per student in the public school system is nearly $28,000 annually, while the voucher program costs only $7,500 per student. Other voucher programs have seen similar results.

There is no doubt that increased graduation rates translate into real benefits to society. In December 2007, a bipartisan organization with membership including hundreds of police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys and violence survivors released a report entitled, “School or the Streets: Crime and California’s Dropout Crisis,” linking low graduation rates with violent crimes and noting that 68 percent of state prison inmates are dropouts. The report contends that a 10 percentage point increase in graduation rates would cut murder and assault rates by 20 percent, preventing 500 murders and over 20,000 aggravated assaults in California each year.

The controversy over voucher programs stems from the concern that the programs will cause the public school system to become underfunded, and thus the quality of public education would suffer. Given that the quality of public education is already suffering, introducing competition among schools and expanding the parents’ role in education may be just the solution we need.