If Rhode Island were to pass the bi-partisan Bright Today Scholarship legislation, it would be the most comprehensive educational choice package in America and save nearly $2 million more in state funds for Warwick schools according to the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.
The Bright Today Scholarship and Open Enrollment Education Act would implement an education savings account (ESA) program where students could get scholarships for a private education and also let them and their families choose a public school to attend other than the one assigned by zip codes.
To back the legislation, in both the House and Senate, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released “The Math of Educational Choice Report” earlier this week.
The report uses the Center’s District Impact Model for Educational Scholarships (DIMES) to determine how the legislation would impact the individual school districts in the state and found that 33 of 36 districts will see immediate savings within the first year of implementation.
The only three districts without savings are Little Compton, Foster and New Shoreham.
To discuss the report’s findings and show support for the legislation, which will have hearings in both the Senate and House in May, the Center held a conference call with Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center, Dr. Matthew Lander, a national expert on educational reform and one of the original creators of ESAs, representative Raymond Hull (D-Providence), the lead sponsor for the House bill, and Justin Katz, research director for the Center and one of the co-developers of RI-DIMES.
Hull, who grew up in a house of 13, was able to go to private school thanks to a sponsor. He believes other students should have the same opportunity even when facing financial obstacles.
He said some schools are failing students just because they are overwhelmed and we need to change our mindset concerning education.
“We need to put the power in the parents hands so they have a choice,” he said. “Parents will always want the best for their kids; this is going to happen.”
Despite the sponsorship of the legislation, the Department of Education is against the bills.
Elliot Krieger, public information officer for the department, said, “We believe in public funds for public schools.”
The report though claims it will increase funds for students in public schools.
Stenhouse said that the legislation is a “win-win-win.”
Parents will win by having more educational choices for their children, students win by seeing and aspiring to greater achievement and public schools win financially.
According to Stenhouse and verified by Lander, public schools have also improved academically with the introduction of educational choice by creation competition and parent accountability.
Lander said, “A lot of kids benefit from programs like these even if they don’t directly participate.”
The study concluded that only 3 percent of students on average would participate in the Bright Today Scholarship program if legislation were to pass.
Even if they don’t use the scholarship program, the schools they are attending are saving money and could spend more per student.
The study found that on average spending per student increased $300.
For Warwick, the study found spending per student would increase by $322, $206 in Cranston and $279 in Johnston.
Statewide, there would be an additional $17.2 million on education.
Katz said that the scholarships, which are capped at $6,000, “incentivize” more parents to invest their own funds who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.
“This new system works with elasticity of demand,” he said.
Scholarships come from state funding and are not siphoned out of local taxes and funding and the students, even if they choose to go to another school, are included in the funding formula for their original school districts.
The report says, “If the total amount of Bright Today scholarships provided from a school district is less than the cost to educate those students switching to a private educational path, then the school district will actually save money. The Bright Today legislation was crafted to achieve this goal.”
The estimated savings for Warwick in the first year would be $1,955,641, $1,210,018 for Cranston and $231,405 in Johnston.
Statewide, the study estimated that over five years the state could save over $100 million.
Lander said that currently, Florida has the largest private choice program in the country that saves the state tens of millions of dollars annually.
“There is a national conversation happening about how to update public education for the 21st century,” he said.
Although there is discussion of change, there is no way to get rid of public education.
Lander said that public education is a “permanent feature of American life,” and supported in every state, and no one is trying to get rid of it, but the question is how to make it better for students.
He equated the issue to the difference between a rotary phone and an iPhone. They both have the same main function, making calls, but with an iPhone users can pick and choose apps and programs that best fit their additional needs.
“The main point is still to give our students the best education,” Lander said, “but we can customize education to meet the individual needs of students and who better to make those decision than parents.”
All the speakers noted that this sort of program is most important to lower income communities.
“In low income areas students are systematically shut out of educational opportunities based on how much the family makes. This bill gives the dignity of choice for parents and empowers them with the ability to do what’s best for their own child,” Stenhouse said.
He said that many people misunderstand the legislation’s purpose, which it is not to undermine the public schools, or create a duplicate system, but to open up other avenues for parents to choose for their children.
“Students deserve hope for their future today; they can’t wait on the educational reform of tomorrow,” he said.
To read the study or get more information on educational choice, visit the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s website, www