August 11, 20176min257
Ilana Dubin Spiegel

Imagine for a moment that Colorado families could decide how and where their children are educated. Families are able to make choices between individual, local schools and education options and do so based on their individual values and preferences. Students could receive more innovative and effective teaching and learning that results in higher achievement. And the benefits could extend beyond an individual student and family to an entire community.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? As it turns out, we already have such a time-tested, research-based approach to how we think about education. It’s called public education. In the 19th century, when Colorado settlers became concerned that a private, market system for education created uneven, unreliable outcomes, they made sure to include provisions for a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools” (Colorado Constitution, Article IX, Section 2). Our Colorado ancestors saw the failure of simplistic thinking that producers would always respond to the needs of consumers when it came to educating children. They organized school districts, established by locally elected boards of education, who have control over instruction in the schools in their districts (Colorado Constitution, Article IX, Section 15.). They also protected the free exercise of religion, state and religion co-existing but along very different paths without government interference, regulation, taxation or control, in Article IX, Section 7, which prohibits taxpayer money from paying for a religious education. Public schools were created in part to address the failure of markets to address the educational needs of our children, our workforce and our democracy.

Resisting applications of simplistic, structural remedies from the private sector, such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), is easy because they create less effective opportunities to learn. Public schools attain higher levels of achievement compared to like matched populations in other education settings. This finding is especially true in math, which is a better indicator for what has been taught than reading which is both directly and indirectly influenced by home experiences. In addition, public schools offer an academic advantage to students because they provide a more professional model of teaching and learning. That is, the true education innovators are found in public schools. In Colorado nearly 90% of families consider academic achievement, safety, extracurricular options, perceived pedagogical fit, a school that reinforces their values, one where friends attend or other families look like they do when considering education options. And they still choose public schools.

Regrettably, some advocacy groups continue to elevate an ideological strategy over actual evidence. For example, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by economist Milton Friedman, continues to advocate for voucher-like policies that are rooted in discrimination. Friedman himself infamously claimed that the best way to stack schools by race was through the use of voucher type policies. His modern-day followers claim that vouchers’ close cousin, Education Savings Accounts, are the best route to providing equal educational opportunities for all student but they ignore the evidence. Data shows that private education options under enroll disadvantaged and minority students, and the ones they do enroll are no better served. Reports and surveys generated by astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity have been proven biased, challenged by respected researchers, and fail to pass through a rigorous peer review process.

Public schools do not have a monopoly on the problems that inhibit student growth. There is no question that student needs are great and resources are limited. According to Great Education Colorado and the Colorado School Finance Project, to truly level the playing field for all students Colorado needs:

  • An additional $2000 for a typical student in a typical district
  • An additional 25% for gifted and talented students
  • An additional 35% for at risk students (free and reduced price lunch)
  • An additional 47% for English Language Learners
  • An additional 114% for students with no special needs in small rural districts
  • An additional 140% for students with special needs in small rural districts
  • An additional 73-700% for students with disabilities depending on the severity of the disability

This reality drives the urgency that is empowering parents and educators to work together to secure the brightest possible future for ALL students while protecting and sustaining our communities.