Local think tank seeks legislation to give parents options in education

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Arguing that parents, not zip codes, should determine where children go to school, the Kentucky Alliance for School Choice has launched a petition aimed at getting legislation passed that would allow for a less strict school districting system.

Started by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank based in Bowling Green, the Kentucky Alliance for School Choice is shooting for 100,000 signatures by Oct. 1. According to Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute, allowing parents to choose where kids go to school would create an environment of competition between schools akin to the business world, making school quality more important.

Just like everything else in life, competition is good for quality and cost, Waters said. In every other sector of society, we have choices. But when it comes to the public education system, we dont have that choice now in Kentucky. … Competition will do what more money and bureaucracy have failed to do, and that is to provide a better education system.

When asked about transportation costs that would arise from such a school-choice system, Waters replied that a districting system would still exist, but if a parent wanted to send their child to a school for which they were not districted, they would be responsible for providing the transportation themselves.

But some teachers organizations oppose the petition, saying districting allows schools to address the specific needs of children in that area. Charles Main, communications director for the Kentucky Education Association, said allowing such school choice is an absurd notion.

The only way that local school boards can effectively use their resources in order to make every child gets served is to apportion the services, Main said. You have a school for this district and a school for that district. Sometimes district boundaries are changed to make sure there arent too many children in one school for the resources to be used effectively. To tear down the system is an invitation to anarchy.

But the petition has appealed to some parents in Bowling Green, who say theyd be willing to transport their children themselves if they decided to change schools. Todd Newberg of Bowling Green, who has already signed the petition, says he would do the research to find out what school would be the best for his 15-year-old child.

I think in overall life that everything that has competition is likely to give the best choice or highest value, Newberg said. Imagine if you could only get gas at the station closest to your house, even if another gas station has better service or lower prices. Shouldnt I be able to find the best school for my child?

Main says inviting parents to transport their kids to whatever school they deem worthy would only benefit parents who have the time and resources to do so. A districting system also allows for better partnerships between businesses and schools, he said.

Schools are not McDonalds, Main said. Its not about who can sell the most milkshakes the cheapest. The system works best at schools where there are partnerships among parents and community, where they work together with businesses, parents and volunteers in the community to make sure children have all they need. In order to maximize potential for partnerships, theyd have to have districts.

Newberg says hes been touting the idea of school choice to other parents in his community. Another supporter is Mike Gill of Bowling Green, who says the only way to get the idea on the floor in Frankfort is for parents to make their voices heard via the petition.

From the standpoint of school choice, I spend tax money for the school program, but I choose to send mine somewhere else, said Gill, whose 14-year-old son attends Bowling Green Christian Academy. By having school choice, Id feel I was getting something for my tax dollars.

The federal No Child Left Behind act allows for parents to choose another school for their children if the school theyre districted for fails to make adequate yearly progress for two years in a row. Children in both Bowling Green and Warren County school districts who wish to attend a school theyre not districted for can fill out an out-of-district form at the central office. There are no guarantees that the switch will be granted, as they are based on school population.

Families can also ask for students to be transferred between the city and county districts, but there is a cap on how many students can be exchanged.

Main says because KEA is devoted to providing equal quality education for all children, equal resources must be distributed to every school.

The Bluegrass Institute has made no secret of their support for voucher initiatives and school choice initiatives, Main said. They seem, for reasons unclear, bent on destabilizing public education, and I have to wonder how many of them have taught a day in public school. … What puzzles me the most is, what do they really hope to achieve? KEA exists for the purpose of securing quality education for all children, not for parents who can drive their kids across town to school.

Nationwide, school choice initiatives have lost steam in several states. According to a June 8 article in Education Week, lawmakers in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina and other states shot down bills that would have allowed for more school choice. Teachers have said the debate over school choice is detracting from more serious needs, such as funding for preschool.

Its hard to say how a school choice system would affect Bowling Green and Warren County, but Waters said he hopes it leads to the creation of a charter school, a public school that uses a charter detailing its mission and objectives and runs independently of the public school system.

Even though many charter schools nationwide have closed their doors lately, Waters says this is proof that the school-choice system works.

Parents make the decision about whether their students attend charter schools, he said. That makes the big difference. Opponents say charter schools have closed, but we think this is a great indication that the idea of school choice is a good one. If a school does not meet the expectations of parents, it will have to close its doors. When was the last time you heard about a poorly performing public school closing?

As the Bluegrass Institute continues to try and gather signatures, Main said teachers and schools will continue to do what theyve always done use the resources they have to give the best possible education to children.

Thats what education professionals do, Main said. We will continue to do the best we can to educate children with whatever resources we have, because thats what were about.

The petition, which can be found at www.kentuckyalliance.org, appeals to Frankforts policymakers to adopt legislation that guarantees school choice for Kentucky parents. Those wishing to sign the petition can do so electronically or by printing it out and mailing it to the Bluegrass Institute.  Daily News ·813 College St. ·PO Box 90012 ·Bowling Green, KY ·42102 ·270-781-1700 


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