While Kansas schools perform well in comparison to other states, there is much room for improvement, as the country as a whole does not do well in teaching students to their full potential. School choice programs, either through vouchers or tax credit scholarships, would help Kansas students do even better, and would help close the gap between low-performing students and the rest.
Last week Kansas Policy Institute and The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice held a press conference discussing school choice and other school reform measures. KPI and FFEC recently launched the “Why Not Kansas” initiative to educate Kansans on the need to reform the state’s K-12 educational system to allow Kansas schools to continue to improve. Due to travel problems, the FFEC representative was not able to attend.
One of the insights Dave Trabert, KPI President, told the audience is that since rapidly increasing spending hasn’t helped student performance, cutting spending shouldn’t hurt it. Total school funding across Kansas declined 2.6 percent for the 2009 — 2010 school year, and will probably decline by a smaller amount this year and the next.
“It maybe isn’t great that we haven’t seen tremendous improvement, but especially because we’re concerned with school finance and how it will impact funding, this is really good news. If we’ve put that much more money — $2.5 billion more into our school system since 1998 — and we haven’t changed the numbers, then we shouldn’t be concerned. We have a problem we have to deal with, but money clearly isn’t the answer. Thank goodness it isn’t, because citizens don’t have billions more to put into this problem.”
Trabert said there are alternatives with a proven record of raising achievement. He used Florida as an example, noting that state started a series of reforms in 1998. School choice was one of Florida’s earliest reform measures, and one that the “Kansas education industry” consistently opposes.
School choice implemented through vouchers is one program Florida used. A voucher is a payment from the state made to a school — usually a private school — where a parent chooses to send a child. Today, Florida has a variety of school choice programs focused mostly on children from low income families and special needs children. School choice through tax credit scholarships are also used in Florida. Kansas has neither program.
Charter schools are also not available in Kansas on a widespread basis. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate more independently, usually with less regulation. Generally the teachers do not belong to the teachers union.
In Kansas, the local school district is the only authorizer of charter schools. “Imagine, if you will, if Spangles had to get permission from McDonald’s to open restaurants. We wouldn’t have Spangles today if that was the case.”
While there are many successful charter schools, Trabert said there are examples of private schools and charter schools that have not worked well. As these schools don’t have a ready market of students forced to attend them by reason of geography, the bad examples usually close.
One of the benefits of schools choice is the competition it provides. Public schools do better when faced with competition from school choice, Trabert said. Public schools respond to competition and get better, as they don’t want to lose students.
Another benefit is — perhaps paradoxically — funding, on a per-pupil basis, goes up for public schools: “One of the knocks against school choice is that it would drive money away from school districts, and how could they afford that? In every state I’ve looked at where they have school choice programs, the money that is allowed to follow the student, whether to a charter school or a private school, is set at or below the state aid per pupil. In fact, in a lot of states they’re looking at school choice as a way to reduce costs.”
School choice and other reforms have helped Florida close the achievement gap, with low-income and minority students making large gains.
Trabert also said that school choice programs especially benefit low income children. “We have a lot of kids in the state and around the country whose education really depends on how much their parents make. That’s wrong. We shouldn’t accept that.”
A question from the audience asked why Trabert focused on school choice in Florida, when that state has implemented many reforms, such as merit pay for teachers and alternative certification. Trabert said we in Kansas should be doing these things, too. School choice was one of Florida’s first reforms, and Trabert again pointed to the benefits of competition and its effects on improving all schools.
I asked a question relating to a school choice bill introduced in Kansas this year that would fund scholarships through tax credits for low income students. Some criticized the bill by saying it would allow private schools to choose only the best students, the ones they wanted in their schools, even though the bill was specifically targeted to low income students. This is a common criticism of private schools and sometimes charter schools, that they “cherry pick” the best students, leaving the public schools to deal with the rest. Trabert said “That’s one of the misconceptions that’s commonly put out. The facts don’t support those assumptions.”
Another question had to do with the marketplace for private schools, either for special needs students or other students. Critics of school choice say there are currently very few public schools, so there is a lack of capacity to handle a large number of new students seeking admission using vouchers or tax credit scholarships as full or partial payment. Underlying these criticisms is a failure to recognize the dynamic nature of markets. Analyzed statically, the criticism is valid: markets tend towards equilibrium, with supply equal to demand. With private school tuition being what it is, relatively few parents can afford to send their children to these schools. But with the effective cost of a private school reduced dramatically by a voucher or tax credit scholarship, we would expect to see many new schools open.
Video of the press conference is available here.