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Overhaul Funding (Adopt Vouchers) for K-12 Schools

  • The current system of funding K-12 education, state payments to public schools based on enrollment, should be scrapped.

  • State aid to schools should be funneled through the parents of students by the use of vouchers.

  • Parents should have the right to use vouchers to pay the tuition for any “certified” school--private, religious-based, home-based as well as public.

  • The South Dakota State Constitution will need to be amended before all of these changes can be implemented.

Summary:

There are lots of things wrong with our public schools.  Parents can try to fix these problems by doing things like: voting in new school board members, pushing for new laws to ban or require the teaching of certain subjects, requiring minimal levels of academic achievement, etc.  A simpler and better way to address the problems is to change the way our K-12 education is funded.  South Dakota’s current system for funding education is effectively socialism.  Public schools are built by governments and their operations are paid for by government.   The State sends money to public schools based on their enrollment—funding does not depend on what they teach or the quality of the teaching. Parents may send their children to non-public schools, but if they do that, they get no assistance from the state.  

A better system is for the State to send school aid money directly to the parents in the form of vouchers.  The parents would then use the vouchers to pay for their children’s enrollment into any certified school.  Schools could be private, religious-based, home-based as well as public schools.  Doing this would allow parents to choose a school based on things like: academic rigor, course options, policies on teaching critical race theory, etc.  If public schools had teaching standards or teaching polices that were unacceptable to some parents then those parents could send their children to schools that had more acceptable standards and policies. This would both give parents better educational options for their children and make public schools compete with other schools for funding/students.  Competition would likely make public schools better and more responsive to parents’ requests.

Discussion:

There are few activities more important than the education of our children.  Even so, most parents effectively have little control over the quality and content of what their children are taught.   In 2016 the average per student government spending for U.S. public schools, was $14,100—forth highest in the world (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cmd).  Surprisingly, the international rank of U.S. students (15-year-olds) in mathematics was #31 out of 35 industrialized countries (https://hechingerreport.org/u-s-now-ranks-near-bottom-among-35-industrialized-nations-math/).  Spending on education in the U.S. is high compared to most countries, but achievement is low.  Parents and students have a right to expect more.

In addition to relatively low academic achievement, students in the U.S. are being taught things that many parents disagree with.  The most commonly cited example of this is critical race theory (CRT).  The main tenets of CRT are that the U.S. is a systemically racist nation.  The racism is purportedly practiced by white people.  As a result of this racism, nonwhite people in our country have never been able to achieve economic equality.  To fix this CRT advocates “equity”.  Equity is effectively wealth redistribution.  It is not surprising that many students and parents disagree with the “teachings” of CRT, believing that they are more like political indoctrination than traditional classroom learning.  

Another example where parents and students believe that public schools have gone astray is when the control of public schools has been taken over by the Teachers’ Unions.  During the pandemic a number of Teachers’ Unions refused to provide in-class instruction for students. This occurred even when most of the parents of the children believed that the risks from Covid were less than the likely long-term damage that students would incur from missing in-class teaching.  Public schools remained closed to in-class teaching while their teachers continued to draw full salaries.  In contrast most private schools remained open.

The problems with our public schools could be addressed by passing laws that prohibit the teaching of CRT, require in-class teaching, require schools to achieve minimal levels of academic achievement, etc.  This would probably result in some improvements to our public schools.  But a simpler and better way to address the problems in our public schools is to change the way we fund them.  Currently we have essentially a socialistic form of primary education.  State money is sent to government schools to pay for education.  Parents are free to send their children to non-state supported schools, but, in South Dakota, they must pay for this entirely themselves.  Americans know that a free-market/competitive system provides better quality and selection of products and services as compared to government supplied products and services.  It’s common sense to realize that our K-12 education system would achieve higher quality and be more responsive to the wants and needs of students if it was operating in a free-market/competitive environment.

Students and parents should be free to pick the school they want to attend.  This could be done by changing the way education is funded.  Instead of the state sending all of the aid money directly to public schools, the state should send money (vouchers) to the students’ parents and let them choose where to spend it.  The value of these vouchers would be roughly equal to the per student amount of aid that the state currently gives to public schools.  A school choice/voucher system would allow students, and their parents, to choose a school that is most aligned with their objectives and beliefs.  Also, the use of vouchers would bring competition to the public-school education system.  That would likely result in public schools becoming more responsive to the desires and needs of South Dakotan students and parents. 

The change to a School Choice/Voucher system would initially disrupt the South Dakota primary education system.  But, this could be handled and, over time, the educational system would be better.   In 2021 the average per student amount of aid from the state to public schools was $10,073 (https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/per-pupil-spending-by-state).  This amount of money, if given directly to students in the form of vouchers, would be enough to enable them to afford good non-public schools. Some people may argue that by allowing students to choose from a number of schools, the voucher system would destroy public education.  I don’t think this is true.  Poor performing public schools will need to improve to retain students.  There is no reason why that can’t happen. In the new system public schools would start with a number of advantages.  History has shown that the competition in a free-market system gives consumers the best value for their money.  It’s time to bring that value to parents and students.

 

South Dakota will need to change some laws in order to switch to the proposed voucher system.  In particular, the South Dakota constitution states:  "No money or property of the state shall be given or appropriated for the benefit of any sectarian or religious society or institution." S.D. Const. art. VI, § 3.  This article has been cited to prevent state aid from being given to “religious-based”, schools.  However, the South Dakota Constitution seems to be in conflict with Supreme Court rulings on this issue— (https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/LSB/LSB10509). This article asserts that the U.S. constitution does not prohibit states from providing aid to religious based organizations.  The Court has said it is ok for states to give aid to religion-based organizations if: “… they provide general, secular benefits to a broad class of beneficiaries.”  Schools that have been certified as competent for teaching secular subjects meet this condition.  There are other provisions in the South Dakota Constitution, that deal with the funding of Public Schools, that would also need to be amended.  For example the State’s constitution says that proceeds from mining leases should be used to support Public Schools.  This and similar statements would need to be revised to say that funds from such activities should be used to support primary education instead of saying that the money specifically be sent directly to public schools.

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