Monday, August 6, 2012

Commentary: How do you know private schools do it better?

This is a question I’m asked repeatedly regarding the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program. This unedited question is copied straight from an email I received.

There are two ways to answer this question - a long answer and a short answer. I’ll give both.

The first answer: I assume that do it better really means provide a better education. Certainly that is important but there is another consideration for many parents. It could, and probably should, also refer to doing a better job of protecting children with special-needs from bullying. Bullying unaddressed by educators in some public schools is the reason many parents decide to use the scholarship - not academic reasons.

Most detractors don’t know that participating private schools have to meet certain standards. For instance, private schools that choose to participate in the program must meet accreditation standards set by the State Board of Education. Unlike poor performing public schools, private schools that do a bad job educating children run out of paying customers because students can take their money to a school that does it better.

The question also seems to assume that what I think about private schools matters to parents. I’m not the one choosing which children participate or which private school they will attend. The law does not grant me the responsibility of arbitrarily assigning participating children to specific private schools by some nonsensical system such as basing it on their home address. That is how children are currently assigned to schools in the public system. In the Henry Scholarship program, parents are solely responsible for choosing the private school their child will attend.

The Lindsey Nicole Henry Program makes an assumption, which I believe to be  accurate, that parents who choose to use the program love their children more than the public school system does and that parents are perfectly capable of making big decisions that are in the best interest of their child. In this case, it is the process of researching and selecting a suitable private school.

The question is always general in nature. Parents are not choosing between an idea like public schools and a different idea such as private schools. Parents who are using the program are choosing to transfer a particular child from a specific public school to a specific private school. So the answer to the question depends not on a general idea, but on which specific private school is in question.

The law does make a general value judgement: More options are better than fewer options. Parents make the specific value judgments of whether to participate in the program and what private school their child will attend.

At this point, the question has been answered but the answer is longer than necessary. I usually just give a one sentence answer styled as a question. I think it makes my point perfectly if children are our first concern.

How do you know the public school to which a child is assigned does it better?


  1. One problem never discussed in this debate is that while private schools have to maintain accreditation, they do not have to teach the state-legislated curriculum or take state-mandated tests. In public schools, even special needs students are required to take these tests. The LNH voucher (scholarship is a euphemism) allows parents to take public dollars and remove their students to a private curriculum - one with no accountability.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I have discussed this issue but perhaps not thoroughly on this blog.

      The private schools are accountable to parents in a way that public schools are not. If parents are unhappy with a private school they can take their child and corresponding funds to another school.

      Without the scholarship, parents who don’t have the means to move to a different district or pay out-of-pocket for private school too often find their child stuck in a public school that is unwilling or unable to meet their educational needs.

      The public school system is a government monopoly that can sometimes be unresponsive in special or unique circumstances. The Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship law provides a new option for special-needs students in such situations. As long as public schools are effectively a monopoly they will need to be regulated. Private schools are not a monopoly (unhappy patrons can very easily chose another school) therefore the need to regulate these schools is considerably less. There are reasonable regulation and expectations placed on private schools that participate in the scholarship program.

      The Henry Scholarship program is nearly identical to state scholarship programs for higher education. For some reason the same concern is not expressed about these programs.

      Have we drifted so far as a society that parents aren’t considered capable of holding a school accountable if they are economically empowered to choose what school their child attends. School choice should not be limited to the privileged few who can afford to pay out-of-pocket.

      As I said in the commentary, “parents who choose to use the program love their children more than the public school system does and that parents are perfectly capable of making big decisions that are in the best interest of their child.” This includes holding a private school accountable beyond what the law demands.

      Who better to make these decisions?

    2. Why is it such a big deal what the program is called? Call it a scholarship, a voucher, a grant or a pink pony - it allows students with special-needs to take a limited portion of the public money set aside for their education with them to a private school if their parents believe that is the better option.

      During debate on HB3393 in 2010 some representatives also tried to make this an issue. It is a credit to the vast majority of state representatives on both sides of the issue that they were more concerned about what the bill would do than what the program would be called.

      This is not about semantics - it's about children being able to choose what school they attend.

      What the program does is more important than what it is called. It focuses on what's best for children by giving them more options - not fewer.

      Opponents want to use semantics to keep the most vulnerable students from finding the best possible educational environment. I want to give them more choices regardless of what opponents want to call it.


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