School choice improves educational outcomes

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School Choice Week is right around the corner. This year’s celebration includes a special cross-country “whistle stop” train tour with stops in 14 cities from coast-to-coast, including Albuquerque. Our celebration takes place on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Albuquerque Museum in Old Town. More information is available on the Rio Grande Foundation’s website. Please come out to support school choice in New Mexico!

School choice is working here in New Mexico. Only 10 percent of New Mexico’s public schools are charters, yet charters made up 25 percent of the top 40 public schools that received an “A” grade under our new school grading system. In fact, four of the top 10 schools are charters.

Compare this with New Mexico’s overall education system, which is ranked 46th out of 47 by the US Department of Education. Just 63 percent of New Mexico students in the 2010-2011 school year finished secondary school. It is no secret our state’s education system is in need of significant improvements and reform. School choice can and should be a major part of these reforms.

For starters, New Mexico’s current charter schools must be preserved, expanded, and improved upon. Today, over 14,000 New Mexico students attend one of 82 charter schools across the state. Charter schools provide a healthy, publicly funded alternative to the traditional public school.

Presently, charters must adhere to many of the same rules and regulations as the public school system such as certification requirements, three-tiered salary schedule, and tenure, policies that hinder innovation. It limits the effectiveness of an educational institution that is intended to be outside the realm of the traditional system, thereby giving parents an actual distinctive choice.

Of course, charter schools are not the only way to enhance school choice. Education tax credits can be an effective school choice policy and their popularity continues to grow nationwide with bi-partisan support.

Unlike school vouchers where the government sends a check to parents to send their kids to a voucher-approved school, education tax credits reduces the amount of money a taxpayer owes the government for every dollar he or she spends on a child’s education.

Tax credits allow for their recipients to donate to scholarship funds that give low-income and needy families education choices including those of private or parochial schools. Such a policy can even save the state money. According to a nonpartisan study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, for every $1 spent on the tax credit program, Florida taxpayers saved an estimated $1.49. Florida is one of many states to have embraced tax credits as a tool for creating school choice.

Virtual education is yet another form of school choice with great potential for New Mexico. The term describes a type of schooling that entirely or primarily uses online methods. It is a relatively new innovative development in education with enormous potential. Technology has improved many facets of our lives and it is only natural to extend those benefits to education. Virtual learning provides an enhanced and customized delivery of education that would benefit New Mexico by providing individualized learning opportunities to students.

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is a great example of the success of an online learning alternative. A report by the Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability found that students in the Florida Virtual School outperformed their peers in traditional public school on the Advanced Placement exam. FLVS students scored an average of 3.05 on AP exams versus an average score of 2.49 for public-school students. In a survey conducted by the FLVS, 53 percent of parents said that their students learned more in their FLVS courses than in the traditional classroom.

These are but a few of many reform options that could benefit our children by improving their educational outcomes. We owe it to the current and future generations of New Mexico children to allow for the best possible educational environment. We should implement policies that allow for the decisions to be made at the ground level — on the frontlines — by parents, educators, and local communities.

Join the National School Choice Week celebration in New Mexico on Jan. 26 so that we may shine a spotlight on effective education options for every child.

Marcos Portillo is a policy analyst with New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.