November 2014 Church & State | Editorial

A pro-voucher group called the Center for Education Reform recently criticized the state of South Dakota for not having enough education “choice” options. It seems that the good people of South Dakota would rather put the emphasis on public schools, and this bothers the voucher crowd.

The Center and groups like it talk often about options such as charter schools, but this is merely a stalking horse for what they really want to do: turn secondary education over to the for-profit and religious sectors. The Center, which is funded in part by a foundation connected to the Walmart store chain, does these things because it has an idealogical bias against public education.

South Dakota hasn’t fallen for this. The state has a lot of rural areas and small towns. In such places, public schools are often the lifeblood. They are seen as an important part of the community. Although many people in these areas are undoubtedly religious, they have no desire to see education fragmented along sectarian lines.

Other states would do well to follow South Dakota’s example. Across the country, we’ve seen an explosion of what are euphemistically called “choice” plans. In reality, this is a huge privatization scheme. Instead of a taxpayer-funded public school system that answers to local control and that is open to all young people regardless of creed or philosophy, some states are moving toward education run by religious groups or private entities – yet still tax funded.

Such approaches are often labeled “experiments,” and they may start in low-income areas and troubled urban neighborhoods. Interestingly, such “experiments” are rarely, if ever, extended to wealthy areas. There, people expect a well-funded, high-functioning public school system, and they have the power to demand it.

If these “experiments” are so great, why aren’t they extended to the well-heeled and politically powerful residents of upscale suburbs? We know the answer: The “experiment” is a reckless one. It’s little more than an abrogation of duty. Some legislators, unwilling or unable to face the challenge of boosting public school performance in troubled areas, are trying to pass the task to the private sector.

The private sector is simply not up for it. Ninety percent of American school children attend public schools. Parents want public institutions that work, not a piece of paper stamped “voucher” that throws them into the brave new world of “school choice,” where those who own and operate private institutions, not parents, get the choice.

The people of South Dakota have so far resisted the false promises of the voucher crowd. This bothers groups like the Center for Education Reform. It should not trouble anyone in South Dakota. Rather, the people there should be proud of the path they have chosen. It’s worthy of emulation.