My Turn: School vouchers more harmful than helpful

The week of Jan. 26 through Feb. 1 is promoted as School Choice Week by organizations that advocate for the privatization of public education under the guise of giving every parent the opportunity to choose the right school for his or her child, no matter social or economic status.

However, the tale of vouchers has been told repeatedly and the moral of the story is that they result in some children being harmed and taxpayers being taken to the cleaners. Let’s take for example the recent news out of Milwaukee, Wisc. On Jan. 14, 2013 the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that LifeSkills Academy, a K-8 voucher school, abruptly closed its doors in December 2012.

LifeSkills Academy had collected over $200,000 of taxpayer-funded voucher payments for the 2013-14 school year, which the state of Wisconsin is unable to recoup. In addition, the 66 students that attended LifeSkills are now enrolled in other schools, which will not receive funding this year from the state for these additional students.

Beyond the poor use of public resources, what is even more distressing about this story is that no students attending LifeSkills were proficient in reading or math in 2012-2013, except for a single fourth-grade student, according to the most recent achievement test score results.

Education leaders in Alaska have recognized the need to provide alternative learning opportunities for children. Across the state of Alaska, public education offerings for students include traditional public schools, charter schools, correspondence schools, magnet schools and boarding schools.

Within the last month, I have had the opportunity to attend several meetings where public education was a topic. At these meetings, a number of people spoke up about how much they love their children’s public schools. They were not interested in vouchers or tax tuition credits. Rather, they were concerned about adequate funding to maintain programs, retain teachers and support staff, and ensure that their children did not lose opportunities that were available to students in previous years.

Choice is an American value. Public education has been responsive and parents have many great choices for where to send their children to school, especially in the urban areas of Alaska.

There are those who will argue that their type of “school choice” is needed because Alaska schools are not performing based on cherry-picked data.

Alaska’s public schools do have challenges, no one denies that. The Department of Education and Early Development, school boards, school district administrators and educators are working hard to address the needs of students and to raise student achievement across the state.

The answer to those challenges, however, is not to change the constitution or pass legislation that opens the door for schools, such as Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy, to move to Alaska and steal precious public resources and ultimately harm students.

• Ron Fuhrer is president of NEA-Alaska, which represents teachers unions statewide.

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