Making the case for school choice

In his Jan. 27th column, “Vouchers steal public school funds,” former North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl wrote in opposition to school choice legislation introduced by Rep. Clair Cory, R-Grand Forks.

Omdahl made several statements regarding why he believes House Bill No. 1532 is a bad idea — from claims that choice programs “divert money away from public schools” to constitutional violations.

Let us ease your mind, Mr. Omdahl.

First, there’s the “draining money” myth. Public schools receive state funding only for the students actually enrolled in those schools. If a child does not attend the public school, the school is relieved of the costs associated with educating that student and doesn’t receive the state dollars to provide that service. That’s not “stealing” money from public schools — a public school has no right to state taxpayer money for students it doesn’t teach.

House Bill No. 1532 reimburses participating North Dakota families 15 to 30% of tuition at an eligible K-12 nonpublic school. In 2020, inflation-adjusted spending per K-12 student was over $14,000. The average tuition for private schools in the state is less than half of that, which means the maximum reimbursement allowed under the bill is a fraction of what the district would have to spend to educate that child. And the public school would retain local and federal funds for its fixed overhead costs. (Although most of their costs are variable, which has been true long before school choice.) Bottom line: Public schools end up keeping money for a student they no longer have the responsibility of educating.

Out of 52 analyses on the fiscal effects of private school choice programs, 47 found overall fiscal savings for taxpayers. Four studies found the programs were cost neutral. Only one found that Louisiana’s choice program for students with exceptional special needs generated net costs.

Omdahl also states that public education is “not adequately funded” but offers no numbers on what “adequate” would amount to. Here’s some numbers: From 2002 to 2020, total K-12 revenue (state, local, and federal) adjusted for inflation has grown 66%. The state revenue portion alone? 142% growth. Total current spending is up 61% over the same period. Spring 2020 test scores showed 53% of students couldn’t read at grade level. In math, 56% couldn’t do grade-level math.

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous state courts have put to rest claims that private school choice programs violate the principle of separation of church and state and are unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, an educational choice program is considered constitutional if it includes religious neutrality and private choice. Because every current educational choice program has these two features, “they pass muster under the First Amendment,” according to the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm.

It’s far time for North Dakota to join its neighbors and many other states across the country that are prioritizing students over systems. House Bill No. 1532 is a good place to start.

This op-ed was first published in Inforum – Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo.