Scott Tibbs
Published in Hoosier Review, 10-21-2002

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How can we proceed on School Choice?

With every election year, education is a front-burner issue, and for the last few elections, school choice has been on the front burner in the educational reform debate. The 2002 elections are no different.

Implementing school choice would be a step in the right direction. Schools would have to compete for students, with that competition providing an incentive for schools to provide the best education product possible. Making it easier for parents to choose alternative methods of educating their children would also chip away at the government school monopoly that sees American children fall far behind the children of other countries in academic achievement. But school choice wouldn't deprive government schools of the revenue necessary to operate, as in most school choice plans some funding would stay behind when a child leaves for another school, making the dollars to-students ratio more favorable than it was before.

The debate over vouchers continues, with school choice opponents using the "Blaine Amendments" added to state constitutions in the late 1800's as a weapon to prevent them from being implemented. These amendments, passed in part due to anti-Catholic sentiment, prohibit public funds from going to religious organizations. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that vouchers don't violate the federal Constitution, state constitutions still present a roadblock for voucher supporters.

This may be a fortunate event for school choice advocates. One potential danger of vouchers is that when a Christian school takes money from government (Whether state, federal or local government) it opens the door for government interference in those schools. This precedent for this has been established, with San Francisco demanding that Catholic charities end discrimination in hiring practices on the basis of sexual preference. In a 2001 speech, U.S. Representative John N. Hostettler mentioned a private college which was told to abide by all federal regulations simply because some of its students benefitted from federally subsidized student loans. Do we really want to take this risk with our educational system?

As an alumnus of a private Christian School (Grace Baptist Academy in Angola, Indiana, 1992) I don't want to give the government any excuse to regulate private schools or restrict the religious freedom those schools now enjoy thanks to not having government strings attached to them.

School choice proponents should also be wary of instituting yet another government program to fix the problem. One point that Reagan Republicans have made over the last twenty years or so is that "government is the problem, not the solution". Tax credits for businesses or foundations that provide scholarships to private schools would be preferable to having government put its hands into private schools that consistently outperform government schools.

A better solution is educational tax credits, like those being advocated by Jim Billingsley, a Libertarian candidate for State Representative in District 60 (including much of Monroe County) and the former President of the Monroe County Taxpayers Association. Of course, the Herald-Times got Billingsley's position wrong in a staff editorial about the District 60 race. The Herald-Times wrote:
"This is an active race. Sabbagh has been issuing regular position statements on major issues, giving voters clear views on the differences he perceives between himself and Welch. Welch has been making her own positions clear, while Billingsley has been pushing a school-choice plan for the state that would include a voucher system for kids in private schools."
Not surprisingly, the H-T only got half the story. While Billingley has called for school choice in his campaign, the plan does not include vouchers. Instead, Billingley's plan for tax credits would go to parents, not schools, making it more difficult for the government to justify interference in the affairs of private schools. In addition, Billinglsey's plan would aid parents who home school their children. Home school children are too often left out in debates over school choice, despite the fact that the numbers of families choosing to home school their children have increased dramatically in recent years, and despite the fact that home schooled children do better academically than their peers in government schools, a fact shown by standardized achievement tests and college entrance exams. Billingsley should be applauded for bringing home schooled children into the debate with his proposal.

School choice is an excellent idea, but needs to be approached in a different manner. With choice advocates like Billingsley leading the way, perhaps we can take this movement to the next step.