Turningthe voucher argumenton its head

We must find new and innovative ways to im-prove public schools, before it’s too late.

Champions of public education will rightly criticize the school voucher plan Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, recently introduced. If private schools get public funds in addition to tuition, they will eventually put public schools out of business, destroying an important cornerstone of our democracy.

But those who value public education need to do more than simply fight the proposal and others like it. We need new initiatives to improve public schools, and we should start by turning the voucher concept on its head. School systems should be allowed to create some tuition-based schools, thus bringing private dollars to public schools, instead of the reverse.

A school district could create a tuition-based school that charges $2,000 per child, per year. That school keeps, say, 70 percent for on-site, parent-directed improvements. The other 30 percent goes to improve other schools.

Imagine a public school with 500 students that collected an additional $1,400 per student in tuition and what it could do with an extra $700,000 a year in unrestricted funds. Then imagine what the district could do with the additional $600 per student -$300,000 – to help other schools.

The key to this plan would be attracting parents – like my wife and I – who are willing and able to pay tuition for a public school. We plan to send our son to a public kindergarten this fall, and would certainly pay tuition in exchange for a significant say in its use. That’s what private school parents get. We’re not well off, but we can afford $2,000 a year – it’s much less than our preschool costs. I’m certain there are many other willing and able families.

Critics might argue my plan would lead to a two-tiered public educational system. I wouldn’t dismiss this argument lightly. But we’re already facing that prospect, between public and private schools. This inequity will only grow stronger as vouchers, tuition tax credits and other plans are enacted. Support for such plans will grow as confidence in public schools wanes.

My plan would bring significant additional revenue into the public school system when state and local funds are hard to come by. It has the potential to keep families invested in – and confident about – our public schools’ future.

Michael Jon Olson has a master’s in education policy and administration from the University. Please send comments to [email protected]