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Saturday, February 4, 2017

More on HB236 and School Choice

A blog reader explained that my article on the school-finance omnibus bill made the impression that the ban on "alternative" schools is a ban on private schools. Constitutionally, the State of Wyoming cannot ban private schools, the reader pointed out. 

Technically, the reader is correct: the state cannot ban private schools. In retrospect, my article would have benefited from spelling out that point. That said, the discussion about school choice is not so much a constitutional one as it is a matter of finances.  

Put simply: you can start all the private schools you want; so long as people are forced to pay taxes into the public school system and then use their after-tax finances to pay for a private school, very few Wyoming families will be able to afford any private school choice (for some, not even homeschooling is an option for precisely this reason). In other words, the debate over the constitutional status of private schools is a distraction, pulling our attention away from the two key issues here. 

First, the fact that the state does not allow public funding for private schools - i.e., vouchers or "backpacking", whatever you want to call it - severely constrains the ability of the general public to use private-school alternatives. The school omnibus bill maintains that rule, thus perpetuating an economic barrier against private school choice. If the legislature is willing to go in and make changes to current law, such as to impose a temporary ban on "alternative" schools, then why could they not instead go in and remove the barriers to using public funding for private schools? The choice not to do so is a deliberate policy that maintains a significant economic barrier to school choice and keeps private education far out of the reach of most people. 

Secondly, alternative schools offer a limited form of school choice, but current law keeps it under tight government control. The default setting for alternative-school availability is such that it first and foremost protects government monopoly on K-12 education. By instituting a 2.5-year ban on private schools you do two things: a) you basically shut the door for many families on the only school-choice option that actually exists within reasonable financial means for most Wyoming families; and b) you take a step back from what is the only fiscally sustainable solution for K-12 education, namely full-scale, voucher-based school choice. 

The alternative-school ban puts more distance between our kids and real educational freedom, for reasons that quite frankly are shortsighted. Perhaps the worst part of the school omnibus bill is that it perpetuates a school system that is among the costliest, if not THE costliest, in the country, at a point in time when real school choice would make more fiscal sense than ever before (and then you have all other arguments for school choice). 

I appreciate the comment from the reader, but it is, again, a distraction from the urgent problem: by maintaining the ban on full-scale school choice we are allowing the school omnibus bill to walk us backwards into our state's fiscal future.

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