Gov. Brown Invokes Religion to Open the Border, but Path to Faith-based Schools Remains Closed

Earlier this week Gov. Jerry Brown was in Mexico City “urging politicians … to ‘heed the religious call … to welcome the stranger’ in addressing the [immigration] crisis,” according to the Sacramento Bee. Gov. Brown continued by saying:

These are children, and many of them have relatives that are in California and other parts of the United States who are working, contributing to the well-being of people in the United States…So given the principle of family values and family reconciliation, I want to give utmost consideration to what is in the best interest of those children, not what is in the best interest of politicians who might want to exploit this particular topic.

Gov. Brown should practice what he preaches about immigration and apply those lessons to the closed-border education policy that prevails in California.

Not a single private school parental choice program has ever been passed out of the California legislature precisely because the interests of politicians and their allies (most notably the state’s largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association) have been trumping those of children for decades.

If Gov. Brown is truly serious about heeding the religious call he should be advocating for one of the most innovative and equitable parental choice options around: educational savings accounts, or ESAs.

Back in 2011 Arizona became the first state to enact such a program. Earlier this year, Florida became the second. Under these programs parents who do not prefer to send their children to public schools simply inform their state education agency and promise not to enroll their children in public schools for the upcoming school year. The state then deposits 90 percent of what it would have spent into ESAs designated for those children instead.

With those funds parents can pay for private school tuition, online courses, tutoring or special therapies, and save for future education expenses such as college.

Regular audits help ensure funds are being used for bonafide education expenses, yet ESAs expand options for students and families who desperately need them without a lot of bureaucratic hassle. ESAs also don’t break state or public school districts’ budgets because they rely on funds already appropriated for students, and districts still keep 100 percent of ESA students’ non-state funding—for students they are not educating.

Fewer students and sustained funding means resources are distributed among a smaller population of students, which results in higher per-pupil revenue for public school districts.

How would this work in California? Public school per-pupil funding averages $8,794, based on figures from 2012-13, the latest year available. That amount is made up of $5,645 in state funding (revenue control limit), $721 in federal funding, and $2,428 in combined other state and local funding, which includes earmarked categorical funding for specified programs.

Students of parents who preferred a non-public school option would have 90 percent of that amount, $5,081, deposited into their designated ESAs. Since undiscounted private school tuition averages just under $6,900 at Catholic schools, and less than $8,700 at other religious schools, a private school education is a lot more affordable than most people might think—even more so because 97 percent of Catholic schools and 94 percent of other religious schools offer tuition discounts.

These schools also help get the job done by educating students they enroll and introducing competition, which improves public school student performance. Students in Florida (a state very similar to California in terms of demographics) enjoy expansive parental choice program options and do far better academically than their California peers overall and across socioeconomically similar student subgroups.

Research consistently shows that children who participate in parental choice programs do better academically in their chosen schools, and they have higher high school graduation, college attendance, and college completion rates (pp. 19-27). These programs are cost-effective (pp. 29-31), and there is strong support for parental choice in education—including nearly two-thirds of mothers who favor ESAs.

It’s time for Gov. Brown to start changing his religion when it comes to faith-based education options. And before he starts preaching abroad, maybe Gov. Brown should focus on converting his friends at home about helping California students across public school borders and into other schools if their parents wish.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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