Let’s continue our discussion about House Bill 610, the school choice bill that would provide law for funding schools through vouchers, plus repeal the current laws that assure equal access and equal treatment for children with a wide variety of abilities and challenges. Let’s make clear just what the school choices are. There is nothing new here, but some issues overlap and some are still quite cloudy.
Public Schools: Public school attendance is compulsory for every child until ages 16-18, determined by states. Students generally may stay in school until they graduate, regardless of age, but some states require exit of public schools by age 21. Public schools started early in the republic. The first was the Boston Latin School in 1636. The first public school for girls was founded in 1767. Shortly after the American Revolution, all states had public schools. These schools are currently funded by state statute and receive local, state, and federal funds to operate. They are accountable to the state government and run by publically elected local school boards divided into school districts. Achievement and accountability measures are all public record. They are tuition-free to every child in the United States and are currently required to offer accommodations and equal access no matter what challenges or disabilities a student may have. These access and accommodation requirements would not be federally mandated with the passage of HB-610.
Private Schools: Private schools are older than public schools. The first were religion based. Private education today is still provided by religious groups, but other founding groups join them, generally for profit. They are free to advance any curriculum in any form they wish, but need to square their instruction and results with accreditation standards if they wish to garner that distinction. Today, laws restrict use of public funds in private schools. That will change if HB-610 is passed as it reads today. Parents will be able to use their voucher (a set amount of money from the state, funded by the federal government, to use to educate a child) to pay tuition. The set amount of the voucher will likely not cover the entire cost of tuition. Poorer families will not be able to make up the difference in cost, thus eliminating a private school as a choice. Add to that the fact that private institutions do not have to admit everyone who applies, nor keep those who get accepted. Private schools do not have elected school boards nor do they allow public access to records and accountability measures. Private schools have traditionally given preference to high value donors and legacies, therefore creating an oligarchy, or possibly, a dictatorship at the top of the school’s administration. These factors would seem to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when public tax monies are introduced.
Charter Schools: Charters are hybrid schools and are likely the least understood. First and foremost, they are public schools, publically funded, and may not charge tuition. They can be further fiscally challenged because they often have to secure and maintain their own facility, thus relying heavily on grant funding or endowments.
Charters must accept all who want to attend. If they receive more applicants than space, students are selected by lottery. Charters operate on a contract between the local school district, the state, or another entity like a public university. They often are given a lot of leeway in applying curriculum, assessments, and organization. They can experiment with alternative theories of education and, in fact grew out of the movement in the 1960s for “free” and “alternative” schools. They can be tailored to fit the specific needs of certain populations, like basing curriculum on the arts, or if affiliated with a public university, comingle classes from the charter and higher education. However, more like public schools, they are not exempt from federal laws and must support the rights given students through federal and state laws. Charters cannot be overtly religious schools, but many are founded by religious groups and lease school space from churches. While religious classes cannot be taught, there is prayer outside classroom structures (before or after school, during lunch, etc.). When asked, many charter students and families answer that they do attend a religious school.
Charter school management is often done through parent groups. There are also management organizations that can be hired to administer charter schools. With these kinds of unelected boards, charters lean more toward accountability issues of private schools being funded with public money.
Home-Schooling: Teaching kids at home has been an option since before there were any other options. Today there are regulations and accountability issues that need to be cleared, but home-schooling is likely the most open and least restrictive environment in which a family can educate their children. Intent to home-school and registration is required in most states. Assessment accountability through a test or professional evaluation must be on file with the registered district at specifically noted benchmarks. Home-schooling is not accredited. Today, all expenses for home-schooling are the responsibility of the parents. With the passage of HB-610, parents would be afforded the use of a voucher to defray costs.
These existing choices will not change with the passage of HB-610, but the way they are funded and federal access, accommodation, and equal rights regulations will. The third installment of this column will deal with specifics about what will be different with the new law.