| May 8, 2013

Parents Have the Right, Responsibility to Choose Best Schools

In a now-infamous MSNBC commercial, TV host Melissa Harris-Perry blithely and unblinkingly suggests taxpayers don’t spend enough on public schools.

Never mind that, since the 1970s, federal, state, and government spending on education more than doubled, even as standardized test scores remained stagnant at unacceptably low levels. Never mind, too, that increased funding all too often goes to hire more administrators than to enhance teachers’ ability to teach or students’ ability to learn.

Surprisingly, though, Harris-Perry’s demand for more public school funding—misinformed as it was — was not the portion of the promotion that garnered the most attention.

No, what prompted headlines was this line: “We have to break through this kind of private notion that kids belong to their parents … and recognize that kids belong to whole communities,” Harris-Perry said.

To longtime school choice advocates, Harris-Perry’s line wasn’t shocking: It was just an unusually honest articulation of the underlying argument against school choice—an argument privately adhered to by most opponents.

The debate really is that simple: Either parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children or they don’t.

If they do, then education policy should be measured by whether it facilitates parents’ ability to exercise that right and by the extent to which it encourages parents in the fulfillment of that responsibility. At the very least, education policy should not deprive parents of that right and responsibility.

Judging by those standards, education policy in Oklahoma and the United States is not yet effective.

Because all taxpaying parents must support public education regardless of whether their children attend public school, the dollars they have at their disposal to personally educate their children or to finance a private education are significantly diminished.

Deprived of their own resources, they are also to a greater or lesser degree—depending on income and personal preferences—deprived of the right to choose the best possible education for their children.

It’s no wonder many parents “choose” public schools; they’re already paying for them regardless of whether they want their children to attend them.

Case in point: As public charter school enrollment increases, private school enrollment—particularly at Catholic schools—decreases, according to separate reports from U.S. Census Bureau researcher Stephanie Ewert and economist Richard Buddin.

Charter school enrollment exceeded Catholic school enrollment for the first time this year, according to the annual statistical report from the National Catholic Educational Association, which also disclosed a 1.5 percent overall decline in Catholic school enrollment.

Broadly speaking, charter schools fall under the umbrella of school choice. They often provide a safer, better alternative to traditional public schools. More to the point, they are often predicated on increased parental involvement.

Nevertheless, their introduction has had unintended consequences, one of which has been the unexpected collapse of many Catholic schools that were delivering superior educational outcomes at a fraction of the per-pupil expenditure of public schools.

When state legislators first began to introduce charter schools, they assumed enrollment would come primarily from students who were already attending public schools. Charter schools, they said, would be revenue neutral.

As charter schools siphon students from private schools, however, the number of publicly educated students necessarily increases—and the cost of public education to the taxpayers goes up.

Still, none of this would matter if the playing field were level in the first place. If parents were genuinely free to allocate their dollars to educate their children however they chose and they chose to spend those dollars at charter schools, so be it.

Unless and until parents are granted tax credits in the amount of the cost of their child’s education, though, that’s not the case.

It’s time for such tax credits.

OCPA research associate Tina Korbe Dzurisin is the director of communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Formerly a staff writer at The Heritage Foundation, she also served as associate editor of the conservative website

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