The Douglas County school board in south suburban Denver is contemplating something very unusual–letting children take a portion of the funds the district collects to any school of their choice, even private schools. The Denver Post offers some information, as does Ed is Watching. Under a proposed “Option Certificate Program,” parents could take 75 percent of the money the state gives the district and spend it on tuition at a private school.
Much is made of the fact that this money could be spent at religious schools. Critics say this is simply a way for residents to spend taxpayer money on religious schools; advocates say it’s a way of offering families more options.
I believe the advocates are right, but the point deserves some elaboration. First, what matters is whether children have the opportunity to learn, not the name of the school they attend. Too often, we confuse the terms “public education” and “public schools.” “Public education” means … the education of the public. By contrast, “public schools” — schools owned and run by units of government — are one of several means towards that end. Home schooling, private schools, public charter schools, and public school districts–all of them–offer public education.
Isn’t there a “separation of church and state” argument? Not really. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public money for the education of children can be spent on religious schools as long as it’s the parents who do the choosing, and children are not coerced into attending a religious school. (See Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002.) Do such programs violate state constitutions? Some state courts (though none in Kansas that I know of) have said no as well, following a similar reasoning that the U.S. Supreme Court used in Zelman.
But if that possibility still troubles you, ask this yourself this: why are so many private schools religious ones? Here’s one answer: As a parent, you’re probably already paying taxes to support a school district to which you can by law send your child. What’s going to motivate you to pay tuition on top of that? Religious faith is one compelling reason, and probably the most commonly used one.
Let parents take some of the money spent on behalf of their child to a private school, and you’ve expanded the range of choices for those parents. Isn’t that a good thing? Most Americans like having more choices rather than fewer.
One very interesting element of this proposal for your policy nerds out there. These sorts of efforts, where they have been enacted at all (Cleveland, Milwaukee, and a few other places) have been implemented by state politicians. This idea, by contrast, is an effort by some local officials to shake things up.
Good for them. The traditional public school can’t be all things to all people. Parents need more options.