Should we be promoting school choice?

The first question we have to ask in any discussion of school choice is obviously: What is it? The standard meaning of the term is that tax money can be used by parents to enroll their child to the school of their choice: home school, public, magnet, charter, private or religious. The idea of course is that any tax dollars previously intended only for public education could follow the child to whatever education provider the parents choose. Let’s examine this.

This issue has become a serious topic of discussion as private school tuition continues to rise. I am old enough to recall when Catholic schools were relatively free to attend. That was back when our teachers were mostly religious who had no direct salaries and all expenses were covered by Sunday Mass collections. Only at the college level did we have to pay tuition. I faced my first such requirement when I enrolled at Saint Joseph’s College back in the 1960s.

The charter school movement originated in the ‘70s and ‘80s and brought private management for the first time into the public school system. The original concept came from public school educators with the idea of experimenting with new methods within the public school system: a school within a school. The movement was then taken over by states and promoted as a form of competition for public schools. Finally, two presidents, Bush and Obama. got into the mix and encouraged the expansion of charter schools at the expense of public school budgets. School privatization took off.

Today, schools that operate under a charter are divided into three general categories — charter schools, regional charter schools and finally cyber charter schools that have no requirement that students be present at a school facility except maybe to take a standardized test. Charters can be organized either as tax funded nonprofit or for-profit corporations. What I find really puzzling is how cyber charters continue to receive the same funding as brick and mortar schools.

Also included in the regular public school system are so-called magnet schools or theme-based schools that utilize specialized subject areas or innovative learning approaches to attract students from more diverse backgrounds. Magnet schools were first formed to desegregate public schools through choice rather than force. Magnet schools can reach beyond the boundaries of school districts, but they are still managed and funded publicly by local districts even though they are centered around specialized themes and subjects. They also have certain criteria for admission or dismissal.

And then there is one of the biggest elements in the school choice movement: school vouchers. State voucher laws essentially reimburse parents for the amount of money that would otherwise have been used to educate their child in a public school. The parents can use that voucher even for a private religious school, ignoring I suppose the Constitution’s requirement to separate church and state. The amount of money varies by state.

Then, in my opinion, there is the irony of ironies in a state like Pennsylvania that already has one of the cheapest school-funding formulas in the country. Under Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, corporations that make contributions to scholarship organizations, nonprofit groups that award scholarships for private schools, can claim tax credits for those contributions. Total funding for this program is capped at $50 million. That amount comes out of a miserly public school budget that is already ranked 45th in the country.

So all these movements and choices sound like great opportunities for students to find the school environment that suits them best. It would be nice if it were that simple. As a former public school teacher, I can still recall parents walking into the school office with a child and signing in at the desk. All they had to show was proof that they lived in the school’s catchment area and the student was registered immediately and soon escorted to their new classroom.

Getting into other schools is not that simple. A parent cannot simply walk in and apply. Private schools screen all their students. I know from experience that it is a complex process. We had to show all kinds of proof that our child was able to handle the demands of the private Catholic school we chose. She even had to pass tests. They had no facilities for children with special needs. Any child who failed to meet their standards was not invited back the following year.

Bottom line: School choice is an illusion. No agent of the state can force a charter, magnet, private or any other provider of education to accept any student who applies. Only one system, the public schools in our state, dependent mostly on local support, must find a seat for all children who apply.

Gloria C. Endres