Open the Doors of Educational Freedom

Posted on March 26, 2003 | Type: Op-Ed | Authors: Ross Groen, Vicki Alger
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Victor Hugo once said, "He who opens a school door closes a prison." But according to the 2001 report by the Governor's Task Force on Efficiency and Accountability in K-12 Education, "Student achievement in Arizona is unacceptable by any measure?.The system is characterized by mediocrity and commitment to the status quo."

The Task Force's Accountability Subcommittee recommended that students in consistently underperforming schools "must be given placement in other schools" because the "status of our system is morally and economically unacceptable." Our public school system has become a prison of ignorance for many of our neediest students. It's time to open the doors of educational freedom.

The state Senate on Monday passed legislation that would expand Arizona's tuition tax credit program to give corporations the opportunity to finance scholarships for poor children. This legislation, which now goes to the House, would mandate that public school students eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program be eligible for scholarships provided by corporate donations. It would give thousands of poor children the opportunity to escape from under-performing schools and demonstrate that our state's elected leaders are serious about improving education.

Most concerns about tuition tax credits center around religion, money and accountability. Let's put those concerns to rest.

Since the majority of private schools currently available in Arizona are religious, some critics argue that tuition tax credits violate the jurisprudential principle separating church and state. But the Arizona Supreme Court has recognized that tax credits are private money, not public money, and therefore do not threaten the separation of church and state.

Other critics argue that school choice will allow religious schools to supplant non-religious instruction, leading to a breakdown of the inclusive social fabric of our nation. This fear is unfounded. As the noted economist Milton Friedman has observed, "If present public expenditure on schooling were made available Murray/Groen Op-ed Page 2 of 2 to parents regardless of where they send their children, a wide variety of schools would spring up to meet the demand. . . The final result may therefore be that parochial schools would decline rather than grow in importance."

Critics of tuition tax credits also argue that tax credits take funds from existing public schools. That argument is entirely false. Every time parents opt to transfer their children from public schools to private schools, they save the state money. The typical tax credit scholarship is about $1,100 per student. In contrast, the state spends over $5,000 per pupil-not including capital expenses. Even after adding ten percent for administrative costs to each scholarship, the state still saves an average of $3,800 for each student who transfers from a public to a private school.

The question of finances has special significance during the present budget crisis. The Arizona School Choice Trust, one of many scholarship tuition organizations in Arizona, currently has over 3,700 students on its waiting list. If all those students were given the opportunity to participate in the tax credit scholarship program, it could produce general fund savings of nearly $14 million-very helpful at a time when every penny in the state budget is being counted. Even by the most conservative estimates, the program would save the state approximately $4 million.

Finally, critics often raise the question of private school accountability. But both public and private schools alike must meet state accreditation standards. In fact, according to Dr. Charles J. O'Malley, executive director of the National Council for Private School Accreditation, 96 percent of all private school students attend institutions meeting those standards.

Even better than any state accreditation program, though, is an involved parent. In order to have their children included in a scholarship tuition program, parents need to take an active role. It is doubtful that parents who have gone to the trouble of applying for scholarships will stand idly by while their children go uneducated. We should put more trust in the regulatory power of concerned parents, and less trust in the regulatory power of state employees.

Arizonans should continue to build on our state's successful tradition of school choice. Since the creation of the tuition tax credit program in 1997, more than 150,000 separate contributions have been made by Arizona taxpayers to keep the doors of educational freedom open for our children. By allowing corporations to assist struggling students, we can open those doors even wider.

--Vicki Murray and Ross Groen work on education policy for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based research organization.

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