Lessons from Europe Means Trusting Families?

James FrankoEducation

Turns out, maybe Kansas has something to learn from Europe. Should we be taking the advice of Kansas Democratic Caucus winner Bernie Sanders and emulating more of what Europe offers us in the way of public policy solutions?

Doubtful, that Sen. Sanders wants to pull the same examples from Europe that I would. But, sometimes it can be important to look across the pond. In doing so, it is clear that the idea of school choice is wildly popular in Europe and is as much a part of education there as bake sales are stateside. That begs the question – what is school choice? And, a secondary question, what are the chance this comes to Kansas?

Put as simply as possible, school choice is the idea that tax dollars follow an individual child to an educational institution of their choice. Instead of the money a family pays in taxes going ONLY to the zip code-directed school, that money follows the child to whatever school they feel is the best education fit. The state still recognizes the educational interests of the child and their impact on our community, but determines that a family knows best how to achieve those interests. That may be the traditional public school. Or, it may mean that the money follows the child to a private school.

Kansas currently has one small program that qualifies as school choice but it remains very limited. A small tax credit scholarship program allows donations to follow the lowest income kids in Kansas, who also attend one of our states’ lowest performing schools, to a private school of their choice.

Where does that leave us? Right back where all questions of education policy end up in Kansas – school finance litigation. A new bill was introduced at the end of March that would completely rework how schools are funded. While opinions differ, it is only the latest salvo fired in the K-12 finance wars of Kansas. Read about the funding formula provisions here and a teacher’s perspective here.

A major policy change included in the bill has the support of a plurality of Kansas voters and brings Kansas to the forefront of school choice nationally. HB 2741 would extend an Education Savings Account (ESA) to each and every student in Kansas. The idea of an ESA is supported 48 to 36 in a recent KPI poll, this mirrors previous polling done within Kansas in which voters support the idea of more flexibility in sending their kids to school.

What is an ESA? Let’s go to the keeper of the school choice flame for an answer:

“Education savings accounts allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts. Those funds can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, educational therapies, community college costs, and other higher education expenses.”
– The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

This is different than a voucher in that it better reflects the reality of 21st Century education. A student struggling in math? Spend some of your ESA on a private tutor. Want something completely different? The ESA will cover tuition at a private school. Don’t need to spend it all in one year? Fine, save the money and when Johnny graduates from high school it can be used to give him a head start on college or a trade school.

What does this have to do with Europe? Let’s quote again from The Friedman Foundation, “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed its 34 member countries and partner countries in 2008 and 2009 for its annual Education at a Glance reports. As “the authoritative source for accurate and relevant information on the state of education around the world,”1 the OECD’s reports show that, of the 53 participants, 25 countries’ governments (nine of which have top 20 PISA scores overall) provide vouchers and/or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools…In several European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland, school choice is a constitutional right.” More on international school choice here.

The Economist magazine writes of Sweden’s voucher system, “Indeed, new research suggests that the Swedish vouchers have had a positive, albeit small, impact on student outcomes.” Another study from Sweden highlights the success as, “improved average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance, and years of schooling.”

In America, ESAs are a relatively new innovation but laws are on the books in Arizona, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Nevada. This in in addition to other school choice programs that exist in states Red and Blue. From liberal bastions like Illinois and Vermont to conservative redoubts like Oklahoma and Utah.

Finally, the numbers are clear. On countless metrics private school choice improves student outcomes in America. For kids inside public schools and for the kids who take advantage of the choice. Segregation decreases, academic outcomes improve in PUBLIC SCHOOLS in state’s with choice programs, taxpayers actually end up saving money, civic values and practices increase as well.

The ESA provision in HB 2741 faces certain opposition from the “just fully fund the old formula” crowd, but hopefully it starts a real conversation about what education should look like in Kansas. Are we happy with widening achievement gaps and having less than half of students be proficient? Or, do we recognize that our half a million pupils are not all the same? Do we recognize that what works for one child may be a disaster for another? Do we trust parents to make wise decisions on behalf of their children?

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