OPINION

Kansas resisting choice that has benefited education of children in Indiana, Florida and Arizona

By Dave Trabert
Special to Gannett Kansas
Dave Trabert

While Indiana is expanding school choice eligibility from 37,000 to 48,000 students, Kansas is resisting even slight changes to existing school choice programs. A Wall Street Journal editorial congratulated Indiana “for its leadership in establishing one of America’s most ambitious school voucher programs.”

Following the pioneering leads of Arizona and Florida, Indiana legislators are giving students a fighting chance, and the results are remarkable.

Between 2011 and 2019, Indiana students’ reading proficiency improved by 12% in the fourth grade (from 33% proficient to 37%) and by 16% in the eighth grade (from 32% to 37%). Students in Arizona and Florida are seeing similar improvements.

Proficiency went backward in Kansas, declining by 6% for fourth-graders and by 9% for eighth-graders. Low-income students also had impressive gains in Arizona, Florida and Indiana, but Kansas students went backward.

Despite these stark differences, Kansas unions, school administrators and others vehemently oppose efforts to give better opportunities to the students who need the most help.

Opposition to money-follow-the-child programs comes from two camps on opposite ends of political ideology. At one end, unions and bureaucrats are in the "more government" camp. At the other end, some people fear that choice will compromise private schools by making them more like public schools.

They have different perspectives, but none of their objections consider what students need.

The education bureaucracy camp for decades has said, “Just give us the money we want and the results will eventually improve.” But achievement has gotten worse, while school spending increased much faster than inflation.

Some people believe it’s better to fix the public school system, so funds aren’t taken away from schools. The impact on public schools is no different than if a student moves out of state; the school still gets paid for the students who remain on a per-pupil basis and they shed the cost of educating others.

If it was possible to fix the system without legislative intervention, it would have been done over the past five or six decades. It’s not for a lack of trying, however.

Joy Eakin, former Wichita School District Board member, testified in support of school choice legislation this year: “In 2013, I staunchly opposed measures like this bill. I believed we could bring change from the inside and fix these issues for our most vulnerable students. But now I’m here today asking you to pass this bill because I got a good look at the inside of the system.”

Here’s the ugly truth. Local school boards aren't held accountable for improving student achievement and the education bureaucracy fights every accountability attempt. There is no incentive to do better.

The possibility of losing a dollar is the only thing that gets the bureaucracy’s attention. Competition to retain students forces school officials to do better by students, as shown by the results in Indiana, Florida and Arizona.

Consider two questions when evaluating choice and other reforms.

1. How long do you think it will take the public school system to get tens of thousands of students to grade level without legislative intervention?

2. What do you say to the generations of students that will be left behind in the meanwhile?

We can't escape that there are more high school students below grade level than are on track for college and career, and results are getting worse. Only 23% of Kansas high school graduates taking the ACT last year were considered college-ready in English, reading, math and science.

While Kansas has been going backward, Florida’s combination of choice, transparency and accountability propelled low-income fourth-graders from about the worst in the nation to the best.

Kansas students deserve no less. All it takes putting students’ interests above all else.

Dave Trabert is chief executive officer of Kansas Policy Institute.