If the 2012 Idaho Legislature expands on last session’s Students Come First education reform package, lawmakers should do everything they can to help families become free to choosethe best education for their children. Students Come First was a great start, but there is much more to do if educational quality in Idaho is going to improve substantially.Idaho can look to Florida’s education revolutionfor guidance. Over the last decade, Florida has given families choices including charter schools, vouchers, online education and tax credit scholarship programs. The state also requires A-F letter grades for schools, bans social grade promotion and has a statewide reading campaign designed to get all students up to grade level.
The results? Florida’s test scores have climbed from below Idaho’s and the national average to well above both. The most recent scores show Florida’s Hispanic fourth-graders reading almost as well as all of Idaho’s fourth-graders, and all of Florida’s fourth-graders reading better than all of Idaho’s.
Experts disagree about which reforms caused which results, but school choice is clearly a factor. If Florida parents don’t like the failing grade or anything else about their child’s school, they can make another choice. Choices between schools are limited for many Idahoans, especially those living in small towns. This needs to change.
Superintendent Tom Luna’s leadership leading to the Students Come First legislation led to long-needed systemic changes. Students Come First put control back into the hands of locally-elected school boards, created transparency by ensuring union-district contracts are on the Internet, and led to Idaho becoming the first state to require two credits of online learning to graduate from high school.
However, if Students Come First, then institutions necessarily come afterwards. To help parents make decisions on behalf of their student’s needs, the Legislature needs to make the following changes:
- Remove the cap on the number of public charter schools allowed to be authorized in any given time period. Right now only six new charter schools per year are allowed. Artificial limits restrict good ideas.
- Increase the number of high quality individual online courses available to all students. As a student from rural Oklahoma notes in this essay, digital learning is the key to small town school choice. Access to the Internet removes any geographic disadvantages rural students might have.
- Institute tax credits for k-12 scholarship-granting organizations. Those who donate directly to k-12 and post-secondary schools already enjoy tax credits for their donations. Individuals and corporations also should receive credit towards their Idaho tax burden when they donate to charities which then award school scholarships. Tax credit scholarship programs have existed in Arizona for ten years and the United States Supreme Court recently upheld their right to exist.
While lawmakers decide how best to evaluate schools and teachers, school choice allows families to judge schools and teachers on their own - with their feet. Good schools and teachers will retain students and poor ones will lose them, even in the smallest towns if Idaho removes restrictions on digital learning. Policy changes leading to better schools in the future mean little to families needing better education for their children now. More school choice increases the odds parents can find the right education, right now - which, in the short window of time available to educate a given child, is the only time that really matters.