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Vouchers improve, don’t threaten, existing RHODE ISLAND school systems

School-VouchersThe Ocean State has tested the waters with school choice for six years. As other states leap ahead of Rhode Island in the educational opportunities provided to families, it appears Rhode Islanders are ready to dive in. And they should.

In 2006, Rhode Island lawmakers enacted a school-choice program that gives state tax credits for corporate donations made to nonprofits that, in turn, provide private-school scholarships. Rhode Island is one of 13 states to offer such a program. However, its plan is one of the most restrictive in the country.

To participate, a child’s family income cannot exceed 250 percent of the poverty level ($57,625 for a family of four) and the overall limit on available credits is $1.5 million — a key factor in why just 382 students participated last school year. By comparison, Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program has no income restriction and the overall funding cap is $58 million, giving 11,292 children the ability to receive scholarships.

But there are programs even bigger than Georgia’s, and Rhode Islanders support heading in that direction.

A poll commissioned by my organization — reflecting the statewide composition of registered voters — found 56 percent of Rhode Island voters supported vouchers; 33 percent opposed them. Vouchers are similar to tax-credit scholarships in that they afford families the ability to choose private schools. Where they differ is the funding: Vouchers use a portion of the existing state public-education dollars reserved for a participating child.

And it’s no wonder voters support giving families access to vouchers. Rhode Islanders think very highly of the private schools near their homes. When asked what letter grade they would give those schools, 31 percent gave private schools an A, and 35 percent gave private schools a B. By comparison, just 9 percent of those voters gave public schools an A, with 34 percent giving them a B.

That’s not meant to be a slight on the state’s public schools. Rhode Island has many public schools that are serving families well. Still, for whatever reason, some students’ needs are better met in different learning environments. Vouchers let their parents find and use those options.

Today 13 states have voucher programs, the largest of which is in Indiana. There, more than 60 percent of all families — specifically low- and middle-income households — are eligible for vouchers. In the program’s third year, more than 20,000 parents applied for vouchers. And because vouchers are funded with just a portion of a student’s existing state education funds, Indiana’s program returned savings worth $4.2 million to local school districts in its first year, which will grow as voucher enrollment climbs.

Critically, those savings redistributed to Indiana’s public schools provide a win-win for both the students who used vouchers and the public schools affected by them. Empirical research on vouchers corroborates the benefits for both.

Of the 12 random-assignment studies — considered the “gold standard” of social-science research — on voucher students, 11 found some or all participants made academic gains because of the school choice policy. Just one found no effect, and none concluded there was a negative effect from vouchers.

As for public schools, 23 empirical studies have examined the academic impact vouchers have on students who remain in public schools affected by school choice. Of those, 22 showed there were academic gains for those public schools, one found no effect, and none established a negative impact.

The reasons for the improvements are simple. Families can find schools where their children have a stronger likelihood of success. Meanwhile, that choice places a healthy incentive — not more tests or regulations — on schools to provide the best possible service to enrolled families, or else they could leave.

Such evidence is why, this past legislative session, Rep. Elaine Coderre (D-Pawtucket) introduced what would be one of the largest school-voucher programs in the nation, making it available to a majority of Rhode Island families. Some might have concerns with the size of such a program, but they shouldn’t.

Existing — and smaller — school-choice programs have produced benefits for participants, public schools and taxpayers. Those positive outcomes would only be amplified with a larger plan. And remember, families don’t have to use vouchers; they’re just an option.

Also, Rhode Island voters support making that option available to all families. According to our survey, 62 percent agree, while 33 percent disagree, with making all families eligible for vouchers. By comparison, just 32 percent support a program based on financial need.

Although Representative Coderre’s proposal did not have the backing to advance this year, it is expected to be considered again in 2014. That plan is not a threat to the existing schooling system but rather a proven plan to make it even better. Rhode Island voters are ready for this ship to set sail.

Source: Providence Journal – by Michael Chartier (Rhode Island state programs director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice)

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2013 by in Charter Schools, Rhode Island, School choice and tagged .


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