Making the right choice

Voucher program would provide parents with flexibility to choose best school for children

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PROVIDENCE — Kara Wilson grew up with a poor education on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, an area she describes as having a high percentage of Native Americans living below the poverty line.

When she moved with her 10-year-old daughter June to the struggling city of Central Falls, Wilson knew that it was imperative to find a school that would challenge her child academically. Wilson did not want the location of her new home to dictate the conditions of June’s education. “I knew that I didn’t want to put her into the public schools,” she said. “I was looking for an alternative.”

Wilson desired the freedom to choose a school with high expectations and standards. Knowing from experience the obstacles that would be placed in June’s path without a strong education, Wilson decided to enroll her daughter in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy.

“I wanted her to have a better education than I had,” said Wilson, who is not a Catholic. “I believe that a Catholic school would be perfect for her and instill those important values. Without education, you can’t get far in life.”

Wilson was one of dozens of engaged parents and students assembled in the Statehouse June 11 to offer support for the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act, H-6131, and to deliver testimony before the House Committee on Finance.

According to the Rhode Island Families for School Choice, throughout the country, children are assigned to a public school based on where their parents live. School districts, in nearly all cases, control local finances and educational programming that ultimately dictate the terms and conditions of education for students enrolled in those schools. School choice would give parents the freedom to choose a school that would best meet the needs of their children.

The bill, introduced by Representatives Elaine Coderre (D-Pawtucket) and Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), would enable parents to choose from among public or private schools or home school as options to educate their children. The bill would allow parents to use some of the public funds set aside for education to send their children to the school of their choice.

Coderre, co-sponsor of the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act said that the reason she agreed to show her support for this legislation is because it is a “family friendly bill.”

“Parents know their children best,” she said. “I think they should have the ability to send their kids to a school that they know will be best for their children.”

She stressed that the bill is about choice, empowering parents to make the best decision in their particular case.

“It's a fairness issue," she added.

Bob Coderre, who attended Pawtucket public schools before enrolling at St. Raphael Academy for his high school years, said that most people couldn’t afford to pay twice for education. The single parent with three children in Catholic Schools shared that the cost of tuition for him is approximately $25,000 a year, which does not include books or uniforms.

“For me, this is about having the choice,” he said. “I already pay property tax. It’s almost like having to pay twice. Having a bill like this gives me a choice to get a voucher to defray some of the cost and that could be the difference of being able to send my kids to Catholic school or not.”

Leslie Beatty, whose two children are enrolled in Catholic school, recognizes the benefits of faith-filled education.

“We are a faith-based family,” said Beatty. “I went to Catholic School and I want that same education for my children. We want that faith-based cornerstone.”

And vouchers would help parents who wish to send their child to a school best suited to their educational needs.

John Turston said that keeping his children in Catholic school is a struggle.

“I spend a lot of money on Catholic tuition and I spend a lot of money on public education at the same time. I need the help,” he said. “If I had a voucher, I wouldn’t have to worry about how I was going to give my kids a good education. They just benefit spiritually from Catholic education. The teachers have that nurturing spirit.”

Thirteen-year-old Abigale Fleurima, shared that her mother, who has been suffering from an illness, has made great sacrifices to send her to the school of her choice.

“It has been difficult for my mom to send me to a Catholic school,” she explained. “If this bill passed, it would be really good for other kids going through hard times to have a chance to choose their education.”

School vouchers would provide parents a helpful resource in determining their child’s educational journey, said James Sheil, president of the parent federation. He added that the greatest challenge for this bill is educating the public.

“This will improve education in the state and will create a competitive environment for all schools which I think would be a value for the state, attracting families from all over. People should contact their legislators and talk to the parent/teacher associations, write letters to the editor, call into talk shows just to let people know. We need a grassroots effort in order to bring this thing forward.”

Sheil further explained that the voucher would in essence allow for the taxpayer funds that would be spent to educate the child in one school to be applied toward the cost of their education in the other. For students moving from one public school system to another, a voucher would eliminate the need for a family to relocate to another community in order to enroll their child in the public school system there.

Families in Rhode Island need the unrestricted, unlimited opportunity to choose the best educational option for their children, said Leslie Davis Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations for the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

“When families have school choice, they become more engaged in school activities, more inquisitive about educational services that may be offered to their children,” she said. “School choice is positive for all concerned.”

Hiner added that it is critical for advocates to draw a clear distinction between families who need educational options for their children and thus support the bill, and vested interests/adults of the current educational system who fear losing power, money, control and thus oppose the bill.

“No parent can predict whether their children will need a different school, or a different learning environment at some point, and no parent can predict whether they will be able to afford a different option if and when that day arrives,” Hiner explained. “School choice supports families by taking that fear away, and giving families peace of mind knowing that whatever education their children may need, they will be able to receive exactly what they need to be successful. Shouldn’t this be the point of public funding of education – to ensure that the children of Rhode Island have whatever educational opportunity is necessary for them to be successful, to become successful adults?”