Would you give someone a 2-foot rope to climb out of a 10-foot hole? Of course not - it would do little good. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of Rhode Island families face a similar problem every year. While the state has established a program to provide some private school scholarships to low-income families, bureaucratic restrictions mean few students can participate. This National School Choice Week reminds us of the imperative to extend school choice to all Rhode Island families.
Many families have had their dreams of a quality education denied. In 2006, the Rhode Island legislature created a program allowing tax credits for money donated to organizations providing scholarships for low-income children. However, the legislature capped the total amount of tax credits at $1.5 million annually - a comparatively small amount.
Because of the arbitrary cap imposed by the legislature, more individuals want to donate to the scholarship programs than are eligible to receive tax credits. Out of 107 businesses that applied for the credit, only 22 were able to donate money for scholarships. As a result, the scholarship organizations can only fund a few hundred scholarships per year. With more than 41,000 low-income Rhode Island students qualifying for the program, only about 1 percent of eligible students actually received scholarships last year.
The limited number of scholarship recipients represents progress not made, in a state with middling academic performance. Results from standardized tests - the “Nation’s Report Card” - show that Rhode Island’s progress has actually declined in recent years. In 2015, average test scores fell for fourth and eighth grade math and eighth grade reading. Even after spending an average of $16,239 per pupil annually, only about one-third of Rhode Island’s eighth graders are proficient in reading and math.
Studies demonstrate that school choice can improve student performance - while saving taxpayers money. Of 18 randomized control studies analyzing the effects of choice, 14 found academic benefits for students using the scholarships. Moreover, 25 studies found that choice saves taxpayers money.
Many Rhode Island parents already support school choice by educating their children outside the traditional public school system. Who are we to limit that choice only to wealthy parents with the means to afford a private education? Why shouldn’t the more than 40,000 low-income students who did not receive scholarships this year have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers?
The answer is obvious: We shouldn’t deny any parent — or any child — the benefits of school choice. That’s what National School Choice Week is all about. As we gather this week (through Jan. 28), let us reaffirm the value that comes with opportunity and pledge to continue our work to extend that value to every child in Rhode Island.
Rachel McGuire is executive director for Rhode Island Families for School Choice, a coalition of families working to empower families to choose the educational environment that’s best for each student.