Tuesday, February 10, 2004


School Choice: How Nebraska Can Have It All

It's obvious that Nebraska's K-12 education system needs to be deregulated and more freedom and options should be offered to parents ASAP. But an organized system of government vouchers to allow low-income students to go to private schools is not the answer for Nebraska, or any other place, for that matter. A voucher system and government-run charter schools are to be avoided at all costs.

Instead, we need to reduce school taxes to acceptable levels, leave property tax considerations to the locally-elected taxing boards as always, and then divide up locally-collected taxes such as sales tax at the county level by the number of school-aged children in that county . . . no matter what kind of school they're enrolled in . . . do the same thing with state-collected taxes such as income tax . . . and send that amount of money back to those families with school-age children in an equal amount per child, across the board.

It's not a voucher. It's more of an ''educational benefit'' or a ''school rebate.'' I call it a sort of ''G.I. Bill for Schoolchildren.'' It would be fair, democratic, easy to manage and would encourage independence, innovation and an academic focus instead of a sociopolitical one for our schools.

Two delicious results: education spending would no longer be a perpetual political football in the State Legislature. And the union-controlled State Board of Education and state education bureaucracy would be emasculated.

Everybody has to get the same amount of money, or else it's a communistic system.

But what about the counties with less taxable property per pupil? How can the education they provide be ''equitable'' to the education in a property-rich county? The answer is in the private sector, the establishment of private schools that this change would propagate, and the incredible charitable funding power of good-hearted Americans -- not forcing us to share the load in the duty of educating the next generation, but allowing us to do so of our own free will.

Let those schools with low-income children and non-English speakers and those with bona fide special education needs have the federal funding that is supposed to be strictly for them, too, but as for local and state tax dollars, they have to be distributed on a strictly equal per-pupil basis.

Most importantly, there cannot be any strings attached to these dollars, or else we'll destroy our private schools the way we're in the process of destroying our public ones.

School choice has to be like the G.I. Bill after World War II – millions of soldiers got the funding from tax dollars to choose their own college, trade school, or other kind of learning facility, with no strings attached, completely at their own choice and with no government interference in the educational facility they chose.

That's the only thing that'll work for K-12 education, too.

Parents can turn that amount of money in to the public school of their choice if that's the option they choose, and pay not a cent more. I'm positive the vast majority of parents will continue to do this, as before.

Or they can turn that amount of money in to the private school of their choice, and either pay the difference in tuition, or obtain one of the growing numbers of ''private scholarships'' that are being made available from corporations and philanthropists nationwide.

I suppose it would be fair to let homeschoolers pocket their ''educational benefit,'' and the risk of some of them doing that and using the funds for lottery tickets and booze would be the chance we'd have to take, in order to have educational freedom, independence and fairness for all. Most homeschoolers do it better than most public schools anyway, the test scores show, although it is true there are some who do it poorly, and some parents who neglect their children. But I've interviewed plenty of low-income parents and even retarded parents who know that education is a hugely important priority for their children, and I believe this is what they want, too -- everything fair and square, a level playing field for all families. It'd be up to the local governments, churches and social service agencies to watch out for abuse and neglect.

The point is, ''school choice'' in the form of an intricate, invasive, bureaucratized system of vouchers or government-run charter schools would do the one thing we SHOULDN’T: kill the private schools.

Here's how it happens: everywhere that voucher systems are in place, government regulations, accreditation and certification requirements, and forced assessments come with those voucher dollars. All that interference destroys the spirit, curriculum and autonomy of the private schools.

If you're taking government money in the form of vouchers, these private schools are told, you cannot ''discriminate'' on the basis of religion or other types of moral traits in the teachers and principals you hire. That'd be quite a change for faith-based schools. You can imagine. The private schools will get hooked on the government money and gradually lose their ''differentness'' -- that which is working so well in private schools -- in order to conform the curriculum to match the state-ordained assessments that are standardizing K-12 education right and left.

It follows that government money will destroy the ability of the private schools to teach the truth about all kinds of things, or teach differently, and most certainly teach better, as a result of becoming reliant on the public teat and having to conform to what the public schools do.

That's what happens with any form of welfare, which is all a ''school-choice voucher'' system is. It takes money from taxpayers and gives it to nontaxpayers. It's communistic -- ''from each according to his ability to pay, to each according to his need.'' It’s the unconstitutional regulation of religion, and the squashing of educational freedom and independence.

We can't have that here in Nebraska. We need the ''G.I. Bill for Schoolkids,'' instead.

A pipe dream? Probably. But that's my stand.

And we have to get going on this immediately, or start a huge push for more private scholarships to get a massive exodus of poor and minority kids out of our public schools.

Exhibit A: go to the Nebraska Department of Education's website (www.nde.state.ne.us) and scroll to the bottom, where it says ''National Media: Focus Nebraska.'' Click. Then click on ''Education Watch 2003 State Survey Reports,'' and in turn, ''Achievement Gap Summary Tables.''

Ewwww. Nebraska clings to boooooring mediocrity on those state-by-state test-score comparisons, despite our relatively good demographics compared to other states – meaning, levels of poverty, educational attainment of parents, percentage of intact families, per-pupil funding of public education, and so forth. We are underachieving, bigtime. I think it's because of the deathlock that the bureaucracy and the unions have on K-12 education in this state.

More importantly, Nebraska has a terrible, unacceptable, revolting achievement gap between our white students and our students of color. For example, on the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 81 percent of Nebraska’s African-American eighth-graders scored ''below basic'' on math. The statistics conclude that the average black student in Nebraska, no matter what income level, is more than three years behind the average white student, in math.

Meanwhile, by eighth grade, Nebraska taxpayers have spent well over $50,000 on each of those students. Think about it. Why would we keep throwing money at a system that does this?

If you click through the tables, you'll see Nebraska listed at or near the bottom in the rate of improvement we are making in closing the gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos, compared to other states.

I can't live with that. Not a minute longer.

But I can't watch us destroy our private schools with a voucher system, either.

Let's talk about a G.I. bill for Nebraska’s schoolkids . . . and have it all.

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