What is the future of education?

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Developments from three places across the nation provide important information about the challenges and opportunities involved in bringing about real change in primary and secondary education.

The bad news came out of Sag Harbor, N.Y. It was announced in early May that Stella Maris Regional Catholic School — the oldest Roman Catholic school on Long Island, which opened its doors in 1877 — would close at the end of the current school year.

Local news reports noted that the school fell victim to falling enrollment and rising debt. However, another part of the story in a place like Long Island is that sky-high property taxes used to fund public schools reduce the resources available for families to send their children to schools like Stella Maris. To get hit by some of the highest school property taxes in the nation and pay private tuition requires enormous sacrifice that lies beyond the ability of most families. In effect, weighty school property tax burdens crowd out private school options, thereby further reinforcing a costly public school monopoly.

In Douglas County, Colorado, however, the story is very different. In March, the Douglas County School District Board of Education unanimously passed a strategic plan, including a “Blueprint for Choice.” The DCSD website notes: “The Blueprint encompasses neighborhood schools, charter schools, magnet schools, a new home education program, contract schools, and scholarships to Private School Partners.”

The Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, which begins in the fall of this year, will make 500 scholarships available to students in order to attend private schools, including religious institutions, that meet basic accreditation and academic standards. In order to qualify, students must attend a DCSD school for at least a year. The scholarship amount is equal to 75% of the DCSD per pupil revenue (a scholarship of $4,575 for 2011-12) or the private school tuition, whichever is less.

While school choice programs have arisen in various cities with poor performing public schools, it’s important to note that, as NPR reported, Douglas County is “known for high-achieving schools.” John Carson, president of DCSD Board of Education, declared, “Douglas County is a high-performing school district and our school board is committed to constant improvement. The Board has voted unanimously in favor of more choice and accountability with a firm belief that this will benefit all of the students in the Douglas County School District.”

In late April, the Denver Post noted that 27 private schools (including 19 religious schools) applied to be part of the choice program, with 550 parents of 800 students expressing interest (with a lottery held if actual scholarship applicants exceed 500).

And during tough times when seemingly all levels of government — from the federal government down to local school districts — face budget problems, with the students choosing private education receiving 75% (or less) of the public school per pupil revenue amount, the per pupil revenue for those remaining in public school actually increases. That’s a win-win for parents, students, and all taxpayers.

Finally, in Indiana, the good news went statewide. In early May, Governor Mitch Daniels signed into law the nation’s largest school choice program. The School Scholarship Act includes a new voucher program and a new education tax deduction.

The voucher program will be available to any student that attended the last two semesters in an Indiana public school, and family income is below 150% of the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program level. Vouchers could be used at any private (including religious) school meeting basic criteria.

Vouchers would be limited to 7,500 students in the first year, rising to 15,000 in the second, and no cap thereafter. The vouchers are adjusted on a sliding scale based on income, with the maximum amount for children in grades 1 though 8, for example, being $4,500.

Meanwhile, taxpayers with children already in private schools or being home schooled will have a new $1,000 tax deduction available for education expenses, including tuition.

Across much of the nation, taxpayers fork over big bucks to pay for public schools. And the states that spend among the most on a per pupil basis often wind up with mixed to poor results in terms of student performance. Many business owners can provide information about paying lofty school property tax bills, while struggling to find adequately educated employees.

That’s not surprising. After all, a government monopoly in education means dollars are spent according to politics and special interest influences. In contrast, a market system would shift the focus onto the actual customer, i.e., the students.

But does school choice in the real world work like the economic theory says it should? The Foundation for Educational Choice released a report in March that reviewed studies spanning the past two decades. It found that school voucher programs improve the academic performance of the students transferring to private schools, while also boosting the performance of those remaining in public schools.

Imagine that — choice and competition improving quality.

There’s always lots of talk about making public education better, while also trying to get costs under control. If serious, then parents, students and taxpayers need choice and competition, not mere tweaking of a bloated government monopoly.

Raymond J. Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, can be reached at rkeating@sbecouncil.org. His new book is titled Warrior Monk: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel.