School choice attracts attention
April 18, 2019
Three forms of school choice legislation have attracted considerable media attention this legislative session: Tax credit scholarships (LB295), vouchers (LB608) and charter schools (LB630).
While each legislative bill differs in key ways, all have been the target of severe criticisms aimed to demean school choice. Many of these criticisms are rooted in false claims about school choice, and it is important to clear up what school choice really is and debunk a couple key myths.
The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" recognizes the fundamental reality and importance of school choice: "As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental. As far as possible, parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete condition for its exercise."
To varying degrees, the three legislative bills identified would provide for more robust school choice in Nebraska. Tax credit scholarships (LB295) provide additional scholarship opportunities for low- to middle-income students who desire to go to private schools by offering an incentive for donors to make charitable gifts to scholarship granting organizations.
Vouchers (LB608) allow a portion of the tax dollars allocated to a child’s education to follow the child to the private or public school of that family’s choice. Charter schools (LB630) allow certain public schools to operate under a "charter" and have significant operational autonomy in how they achieve their educational goals.
Myth No 1: Nebraska Already Has Significant School Choice. Myth No. 1 claims Nebraska already has sufficient school choice because students have the ability to "option enroll" into other public schools outside their district.
This argument ignores the fundamental reality that only having access to public schools is insufficient for purposes of school choice. As a matter of justice, parents deserve better. Parents ought to have greater access to other schools (public or private) of their choice and the state has a duty of ensuring the "concrete conditions" for access to these schools.
Tax credit scholarships are one critical and concrete way of providing robust school choice. Scholarship tax credits create a greater pool of financial resources for financially disadvantaged families to send their children to private schools.
Myth No. 2: School Choice Legislation Takes Away Money from Public Education. Myth No. 2 argues that all tax money received for education can only be used for public education, and school choice legislation siphons money to non-public education.
But this argument is overbroad and inherently flawed. The argument is overbroad because it has absolutely no application to tax credit scholarships. Tax credit scholarships do not take away a single dime from public education. Tax credit scholarships are incentives for private citizens and corporations to donate their private dollars to scholarship granting organizations, which then provide scholarships to children – most in need of financial assistance. Notably, the tax incentive for donors in no way transforms their money into public funds. Not only is this common sense, but the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed this fact.
The argument also is inherently flawed. The purpose of tax dollars for education is to assist students in achieving the best education possible, not simply for those financial resources to be directed to public schools. This is not at all to say that public education should not be adequately funded – it should. This also is not to say that many of our public schools are not doing a good job – many are. This is simply to say that, as a matter of basic fairness, equity and justice, funding for education should follow a student to the school that is best suited to give them an optimal education.
As school choice efforts continue to receive significant attention at both the state and federal level, you can be sure that these myths will be repeated often. Using civic and charitable dialogue, it is our job to respond to this false narrative about school choice and ensure that all Nebraskans have a more robust understanding of school choice.
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.