One of the recurring themes in this year's presidential primary campaign is how to address the growing divide between our country's haves and have nots. No matter where you stand on poverty and the importance of the individual being responsible for their behavior, it is clear that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are likely to live in what I've heard described as social disorganization. This disorganization articulates itself in many ways including low school performance. When I compare the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's schools' scores on standardized tests to their poverty level, there is not surprisingly, a general trend of schools with low socio-economic students lagging behind those with more affluent peers. A similar review of the Anchorage School District data reveals an even more pronounced trend.
HB 145, approved by the House Education Committee, proposes to provide parents with state funded vouchers to be used for tuition at private K-12 schools. I assume that the premise of the bill is that a more competitive school environment for securing enrollment will float the education boat higher. On the surface, like a nicely wrapped gift, the bill is logical; it makes sense to empower parents to educate their children as they see fit. Unfortunately, other such moves to use school vouchers have done little to help the respective community's neediest students improve. One need only look to the failed voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland to find such examples.
In Alaska's larger districts, parents enjoy the option of sending their child to a public school that is not their neighborhood school. This option has not however, leveled the playing field for the districts' most disadvantaged students. The students who attend our charter schools on the Kenai Peninsula excel and are for the most part, of relatively high socio-economic status. The high performance of these schools begs the question of why our poorest students are not drawn to them. Some of the reason is because of transportation, but not always. With this parental behavior in mind, there is little reason to believe that a tuition voucher will magically motivate this group of parents to suddenly take greater control of their children's education and send them to a private school. I fear that passage of HB 145 will further draw the economically able away from the neighborhood school leaving a concentration of our poorest students in a few public schools.
Using public funds for religious instruction and the associated need for a constitutional amendment and a lack of state accountability at private schools are two other concerns that I have with this bill. But they are less pressing than is the more immediate concern of shifting public money to private schools. If you believe that a successful democracy depends on its citizens having a common frame of reference, then you will agree that it is imperative that we have a strong public education system. HB 145 will fragment our public school system and, based on past experience, leave our low income students with a less than optimal education.
It is fair to criticize the public school system for not doing enough for our students. It is not fair however, to undermine the system at the expense of our neediest students. HB 145 may have a glossy appeal, but when you look beyond the shiny wrapping, you will see that it will leave those on the upper decks of the education boat doing just fine while those in steerage will still be unable to see the horizon.
Dr. Steve Atwater is the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.