Are more choices always better? More options mean more competition and subsequently higher quality products and services. That’s great when you’re the one choosing. However, when it comes to “school choice,” only families in cities are getting more choices, not rural families. Two-thirds of North Dakota’s counties have only their local public school to choose from – we should not be draining resources from rural public schools to give a “choice” to city kids who already have well-funded public schools in their communities.

School choice is a misnomer, leading people to believe that vouchers award disadvantaged families the same choice that affluent families enjoy, thus leveling the playing field. This rhetoric is misleading in many ways.

While vouchers might work in urban areas with many nearby schools, they only exacerbate the problems facing rural families in North Dakota. Most rural and small-town communities in North Dakota only have one school – a public school – in the area. Without a religious or private school, taxpayers will primarily help students in more populated areas in the state as funding is drained from rural schools. Great choice, right?

Grand Forks Representative Claire Corey (R-42) authored a bill (HB 1532) that would compensate private schools in North Dakota from 15 to 30 percent of a student’s cost of attendance. The bill is estimated to cost $24 million – $24 million of public money going to private schools that can’t be held accountable by state officials, instead of investing in public schools that are already operating on limited resources.

Voucher programs leave children behind. Children who are disabled or have special needs will also lose out from any ostensible benefits of this program. Private and charter schools do not have to accept vouchers from anyone. They can cherry pick students that are already primed for academic success and claim that success derives from their educational programs, all while ignoring the applications of students who have disabilities. Parents of these kids don’t get to choose – these unaccountable private schools do.

The potential negative impacts of this bill cannot be overstated. Instead of using tax dollars to fund private and religious schools – which are not required to be financially transparent – the North Dakota Legislature needs to invest in entire communities through the public education systems.

Now is not the time to turn our backs on public school teachers. North Dakota public school teachers stepped up during the pandemic, dedicating themselves to their students and often buying school supplies out of pocket. How do North Dakota Republican legislators want to thank them? By cutting funding even further. The bill introduced by Rep. Corey will give teachers a heavier workload and larger class sizes as well as hinder the ability of schools to hire and keep good quality teachers.

North Dakota has long valued a high-quality public school system. The state constitution even vows that all students are entitled to quality public schools. Vouchers will imperil this crucial tenet of the state by pitting children and parents against teachers and public schools. Diverting much-needed resources from public classrooms threatens not just the education but the futures of kids – rural and urban.

Tessa Gould
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