By Ed Bastia and Matt Fitzgerald
Our children deserve the best opportunities they can receive—starting with a quality education. This past year, when Providence’s failing school system filled the headlines, we saw how desperate our families are for better opportunities. No child, whether in Rhode Island or elsewhere, should have to remain stuck in a failing school, and no parent should be denied viable options for their child’s K-12 education. The response to the failures in Providence’s school system must truly put kids first, and that means taking action now to quickly, impactfully give parents more options.
Here in Rhode Island we are unnecessarily relegated to a model of education by zip code, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. In particular, our state could quickly and easily benefit from the expansion of its Education Tax Credit scholarship program. Enacted by the state Legislature in 2006, the program allows businesses to make donations to organizations that award opportunity scholarships. Those scholarships, provided to families of modest means, help students to attend the school they select. Unfortunately, the scholarship program includes a meager cap on its funding. As a result, only a few hundred students each year can receive scholarships—a fraction of the overall demand for this life-altering opportunity.
Increasing, or eliminating, the funding cap would allow more Rhode Island children from low-income families to receive the opportunities they deserve. Importantly, increasing the funding to opportunity scholarships would improve our educational system right now. While politicians like to talk in terms of multi-year funding plans and ten-year goals, today’s children don’t have time to wait to receive a quality education.
Critics of school choice claim that programs like the tax credit scholarship program take money away from public schools and cost taxpayers money. When parents are allowed to select from a variety of educational options, parents can find, especially at the elementary school level, less costly schools. Nationally, research by EdChoice shows school choice programs and voucher programs have saved taxpayers approximately $3,100 per student, or at least $4.9 billion for the study period. In 2013 a poll by the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity showed over 60% of parents want a voucher system in Rhode Island. Clearly, there is need and desire for school choice options in our state.
It’s also important that we debunk the myth that school choice focuses on a particular type of school—it doesn’t. Rather, school choice embraces an “all inclusive” strategy, which recognizes no two students are alike, and therefore works to give parents the opportunity to select from as many different choices as possible.
Educational opportunities include open enrollment, in which some students could attend classes in public schools outside their assigned neighborhood. It also includes charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded schools with more autonomy than traditional public schools. School choice includes magnet programs, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling. No type of school is the enemy of another. All types of education should be united as partners, focused on the same goal of educating Rhode Island’s diverse youth.
Some states are even implementing an innovative form of choice called education savings accounts (ESAs). These government-authorized savings accounts allow parents to receive and use a deposit of public funds for a variety of educational expenses, whether that is private school tuition or educational therapy. ESAs allow parents—who know their children best—more education options, ensuring children are never stuck in an environment where they cannot learn.
During the nation’s tenth annual School Choice Week this January 26 through February 1, parents, educators, and students will gather at more than 50,000 events to celebrate the different types of K-12 education. Several of these events are taking place in Rhode Island, and you can learn more about participating at www.edchoiceri.org. These celebrations are a testament to how educational opportunity has changed the lives of countless families.
Every student in Rhode Island deserves the opportunity to choose a quality education, whether that is via a neighborhood public school, homeschooling, or anything in between. We know what to do, and how to go about doing it—the only thing we need now is political will. Let’s work to expand educational opportunities and give all our children the chance to meet—and surpass—their goals and dreams for the future.
Ed Bastia and Matt Fitzgerald are members of the board of Rhode Island Families for School Choice, a local non-profit whose mission is to expand educational opportunities for all students in Rhode Island, regardless of income or address.