Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Equal opportunity

NEIFPE member Lucy Hess wrote this op-ed for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette about School Choice.

Taxpayer financing of school choice inevitably leaves some kids neglected

by Lucy Hess

Having been part of public education in our community for more than 45 years as a student, parent, taxpayer and educator, I am puzzled about what it means to have a choice in schools that extends beyond the public schools within my district and the one in my neighborhood. The foundation of our public schools, nationally as well as locally, is for the common good and opportunity for all children to receive quality education funded by tax dollars. The premise is that education raises the level of community participation and contribution by all of its citizens.

What is also true is that taxpayer money is not equally spread across school districts as it is based partly on taxpayer income. Consequently, schools located in areas of lower income do not have the same resources, both financially and within the neighborhoods. In addition, because of inequality of income, the schools tend to be less diverse in those areas with higher income as well as those with lower income.

So what does it mean to have choice? Is it that parents can choose a public school for the arts or math or science? Is it that parents find the quality public school with the necessary resources for their students?

Parents and taxpayers want the best quality education for all children. If I believe, however, that the school in my neighborhood is not the same high quality, then why would I want any child to attend there? Instead of running away from my neighborhood school to alternatives such as private schools as the nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, advocates, we should demand that the resources are provided so every public school offers quality education. It is our job as concerned citizens, parents and taxpayers to demand that all schools have the best resources and teachers. All of our futures depend on it.

I fully support parents’ choice to send their children to private schools, but not with taxpayer funds. Parents may choose to send their children to charter or parochial schools because we have been told, in part due to the faulty A-F ratings, that not all schools are the same quality. No, they are not, unfortunately. This difference may not be due to the teachers or the education offering, but more than likely the inequality of resources.

I was a tutor in an elementary school in a lower economic neighborhood that had the highest level of children with special needs. This school, however, did not have a full-time case manager and school counselor. Compare this to another, more affluent school within the district that had both professionals full time with many fewer children requiring special-needs services. This difference in appropriate professionals could and would greatly affect the quality of education for many children.

So when parents remove children from public schools because of a perception that their neighborhood school is not of the same quality, they can take funds, such as vouchers, for the children to attend private schools. As a result, the quality gap becomes greater due to less funding for needed resources in their neighborhood school.

It is not only the lack of money but also the difference in the physical building, the staff and professionals to meet the children’s needs, and in the diversity of opportunities that result when children come from different backgrounds and experiences. According to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, in Indiana by 2016, more than half of voucher recipients – 52 percent – had never been in the state’s public school system. The state Education Department says taxpayers are taking on $53 million in tuition costs with vouchers. Imagine what could be done with $53 million for Indiana’s public schools. One idea might be to fund quality pre-school education for all children. Another idea is to ensure needed resources are provided for every school.

School choice? Demand that your neighborhood school and all public schools in the district offer the highest-quality education and have the resources needed to do so. Taxpayer money ensures quality education for all children for all of our common good.

Lucy Hess is an IPFW professor emeritus and a member of Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education.

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