Survey suggests need for more school choice

June 5, 2012 1:24PM

Today’s Tennessean publishes an article by Beacon CEO Justin Owen and Friedman Foundation CEO Robert Enlow about school choice. The two talk about what the result of a recent poll sponsored by the organizations means for parental choice in education for Tennessee families. Read the entire article below or click here for the Tennessean version.   by Robert Enlow and Justin Owen When Tennesseans visit grocery stores, shopping malls or sporting events, they are fully aware how much food, clothes and tickets cost. In education, however, most residents don’t know how much is spent in Tennessee’s schools, largely because they’re not in control of their children’s funds. With school choice, that can change. A recent survey on education issues — released by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice — found that only 25 percent of Tennessee voters were able to identify the range ($4,001-$8,000) for how much is spent on average, per student, in public schools ($7,992). When asked if funding was “too low,” 55 percent of those who weren’t told the $7,992 figure agreed. Those who were given the amount before being asked the question were less inclined to suggest more be spent; the percentage of those respondents who said current funding is too low dropped 14 points. Decades of government data prove beyond any doubt that more money does not lead to better academic outcomes. Even if it did, our tough economic times require that we be smarter and more targeted with taxpayer dollars than ever before. Putting more control in the hands of parents can address both needs. School choice, typically referred to in Tennessee as opportunity scholarships or vouchers, allows parents to use a percentage of the funds reserved for their kids’ public educations on private school tuition or other public schools. We already know that school choice helps students do better in school and leads to improvements in public school results. Empirical studies also prove the competitive effects of school choice improve academic outcomes for students who remain in public schools. We also know that because scholarships use only a portion of a child’s public education funding, school choice saves states money; look at Indiana, for example. In 2011, Indiana made more than half of its student population eligible for scholarships. In the first year alone, the statewide Choice Scholarship Program gave 3,919 students access to high-quality private schooling options. Of those students, 15 percent came from middle-income backgrounds and 85 percent were from low-income families, 53 percent of whom were minority children. Through the new opportunities families were afforded, Indiana’s voucher program saved some $4.2 million its inaugural year — savings that were reinvested in Indiana public schools. In Tennessee, many low- and middle-income families have no recourse but to keep their children in the schools they are assigned to by school districts. They simply can’t move to a better school district or afford to pay private school tuition. All the while, they continue to pay taxes and the government continues to spend money to educate their children in schools, which for whatever reason, can’t address their needs. Right now, 18 states allow parents, not bureaucrats, to decide what schools are best for their children through private school choice. In Tennessee, nearly 60 percent of voters agree with that idea, according to the Beacon/Friedman survey. Giving parents power over their kids’ schooling would make them more attuned to costs and more involved with how their children are educated. Those are two much-needed causes in which Tennessee should consider investing. Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Justin Owen is president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the state’s free-market think tank. 
The statewide sample size for the Beacon/Friedman poll included 606 registered voters, reached via landline and cell phone, with a margin for error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.