By Mark Powell
California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 1505 and Bill 1507 into law, expanding the authority of school districts to reject new charter school applications and charter school renewals. This new legislation should be implemented prudently by school districts, because the unintended consequences could trigger a push for a statewide school voucher initiative that would drain even more funding from our public education system.
Without a viable charter school alternative, the likelihood of passing a school voucher proposal is high. If a voucher program passes, and polling indicates that it could, the result could shape the future relationship between public and private schools in California for decades to come.
The results of a new poll suggest that a majority of Americans now support the expansion of school choice for all families, but with increasingly tighter budgets many school districts are denying charters within their boundaries for funding reasons. Assembly Bills 1505 and 1507 are the mechanisms designed to curb charter growth and close existing charters, insuring that funding through Average Daily Attendance stays within the district and not the charter school choice alternative.
The initial argument for creating charter schools focused on a desire to encourage greater flexibility for innovation within public education. And the need to better educate our students is clear as California ranks among the lowest in the country in terms of math and English test scores—nationwide the achievement gap between disadvantaged and well-off students is as wide today as it was 50 years ago.
The reason for the exodus from traditional public schools is clear: parents are choosing to place their children in charter schools, where they will presumably receive a better education. With California ranking so low nationally in education, it’s no surprise that parents who do not have the funds to send their children to expensive private schools are choosing charter schools as a reasonable alternative.
A recent statewide poll, conducted in English and Spanish by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies, surveyed 1,200 registered voters about whether they favored government subsidies for low-income families to enable parents to choose a private school for their children. Fifty-five percent said yes. Thirty-four percent opposed the idea. And even with the charter school choice option in place, California might be ready to adopt a school voucher plan now.
Empowering low-income families with at least some of the options available to well-to-do families is fair. Stripping away parents’ right to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child is unfair, ill-advised and punitive in nature. Worse, the long-term results will do more harm than good to students.
A statewide voucher system would provide parents with what would essentially be a public scholarship redeemable at public or private schools, including parochial schools. If a school voucher initiative passes in California it would create the most far-reaching choice system of schooling in the United States.
Charter schools have become a vital part of public education in California, and they should be embraced by educators as an option to parents—especially in under-served communities. According to a new statewide poll, California voters already favor offering tax credits or vouchers to low-income parents for sending their children to private or religious schools—and it looks like the voucher option already has a lot of support.
Charter schools are a viable public alternative to traditional public schools, and can offer an engaging and unique academic curriculum. School choice and competition remain the main levers of reform—and charter schools continue to pose healthy, viable competition to traditional public schools. The vast majority of charter schools are run well and raise the bar for academics which creates a more robust public educational system.
School districts should embrace charter school choice, because well-run charter schools create competition that can encourage low-performing schools to improve. Rather than simply providing a narrow alternative to neighborhood public schools, school choice encourages all schools to become more innovative and competitive, which in turn increases educational standards throughout the state.
Simply put, school choice produces a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Mark Powell is a board member on the San Diego County Board of Education, representing District 1. He’s also an adjunct professor at National University.
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