Friday, June 22, 2012
Robert Enlow and Carl Graham
Montanans likely would shudder at the thought of being denied the freedom to choose the food they eat, the cars they drive and the jobs they seek. But, in K-12 education, that is precisely what the government is doing to Montana families.
Montanans aren’t alone in this category. Most Americans aren’t afforded the opportunity to choose the schools that work best for them. Rather, families are assigned to public schools based on where they live.
For many, that scenario works just fine. More affluent neighborhoods, for example, tend to have “good,” safe public schools. And, although public schools in low-income areas aren’t always able to offer everything their wealthier counterparts can, they often serve as the center of the community, which is important to a town’s identity and well-being.
Plus, Montana’s public schools do fairly well compared to other states. According to the “Report Card on American Education,” Montana ranks 16th highest for low-income student performance on national math and reading exams. Moreover, the state boasts an 82 percent graduation rate; lower than we’d like, but better than the nationwide average.
Still, regardless of quality, public schools aren’t for everybody, as evidenced by the 18 percent of Montana children who don’t complete high school. That shortcoming could be a consequence of any number of factors – poor schools, learning difficulties, broken homes, laziness – but that does not excuse our responsibility to those kids. Montana must home in on policies that can put those children on a trajectory toward a better life in which they’re achieving success and contributing to society rather than becoming a burden on it.
If the goal is to create an educated citizenry, Montana should applaud any school, public or private, that can accomplish that much-needed task. And a newly released survey commissioned by our two organizations – conducted by Braun Research Inc., which has been used by Gallup and Pew Research Center, among others – shows a majority of Montanans agree.
There are two types of school choice making waves across the country: charter schools and private school scholarships. Montana has neither.
Charter schools are public schools freed from many government regulations in exchange for stronger accountability; if charters underperform, they close. Such freedom allows schools to be more entrepreneurial in instructional methods, more diverse in the courses offered, and more flexible in general. Charters also free principals from most bureaucratic red tape and let them focus on good management and rewarding great teachers.
Montana is one of just nine states to not have charter schools. Voters, however, want them.
According to our survey of 604 registered voters with a 4 percent margin of error, Montanans favor charter schools by 54 percent, compared to 21 percent opposed. Support for charters is particularly strong among parents and minorities.
Similarly, Montanans favor policies in which government funds children to pay for private school tuition – called vouchers – or when government encourages nonprofits to provide scholarships by giving tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to said nonprofits – called tax-credit scholarships.
Vouchers are offered in 10 states. Empirical research conducted on such programs shows not only do voucher students do better on standardized tests, but public schools affected by vouchers improve, too. Vouchers also save states money – in Indiana last year the statewide voucher program for low- and middle-income families produced $4.2 million in savings that were reinvested in public schools.
It’s no surprise then 52 percent of Montana voters support vouchers (with 39 percent opposed). Tax-credit scholarships, available in eight states, are supported by 59 percent of the Montana voters surveyed (28 percent opposed).
Through tax-credit scholarships, vouchers and charter schools, underserved children who, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks at traditional public schools can access high-quality learning options better suited to their unique needs.
Importantly, our survey also found that a strong majority of Montana voters like the quality and direction of their public schools. Some may take that to mean Montanans don’t need other educational options. However, given their strong support of school choice policies, we believe that means Montanans aren’t afraid of providing choices to those who need them. And as other states have proved, why should they be?
Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Carl Graham is CEO of the Montana Policy Institute. For the full survey and its methodology, visit www.edchoice.org/MTpoll.