California Parents Need Educational Choices, Not Court Battles


California fancies itself as a progressive paradise for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. In reality, it’s more like Dante’s eighth circle of hell, based on a recent lawsuit filed on behalf of several public school students and taxpayers.

The lawsuit, Ella T. and Katie T. v State of California, was filed in December and alleges that after five years the state still has not implemented its plan to improve student literacy. Consequently, minority elementary students spent years in schools that allowed them to founder at sub-standard levels of literacy. Plaintiffs argue that not only did the state violate their 14th Amendment equal protection rights, the state also engaged in fraudulent spending of taxpayer dollars by financing a public-school system that discriminates against minority students.

The state fought to have the case dismissed, but in July Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos overruled nearly all of its claims, which allows the case to proceed based on several compelling facts too glaring to ignore.

Nearly half of the country’s 26 lowest-performing districts are located in California, 11 in all (see p. 2 of the complaint). The next most populous states don’t come close to having so many failing districts. For example, Texas, the second most populous state, has just one of the country’s lowest-performing districts, while the fourth most populous, New York, has two. Meanwhile, the next most populous state, Florida, has none of the country’s worst-performing districts. (See also here, here, and here.)

The situation is particularly dire for the plaintiffs who’ve attended Los Angeles Unified School District’s La Salle Avenue Elementary School, Stockton Unified School District’s Van Buren Elementary, and Inglewood Unified School District’s Children of Promise Preparatory Academy charter school.

During the 2016-17 school year, for example, alarming majorities of students at these schools did not meet the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) English language arts/literacy standard: fully 82 percent of La Salle Avenue Elementary School students; 75 percent of Van Buren Elementary students; and 68 percent of Children of Promise Preparatory Academy students (see also pp. 20-22, 29-31, and 35-37).

But don’t blame such under-performance on under-funding.

The average California unified school district receives $12,229 per pupil in total local, state, and federal funding. The three districts the plaintiffs have attended receive significantly more average per-pupil funding: Stockton Unified School District, $13,468; Inglewood Unified School District $13,613; and Los Angeles Unified School District $14,645.

Yet the plaintiffs contend those funds were not used to provide students with the help they needed. Consider the outcomes of the student plaintiffs, all of whom are black, Latina, or multi-racial.

Despite having scored at the lowest level on the state test year after year (“standard not met”), none of the plaintiffs received the additional help they needed from their schools. As a result, these students are now performing years behind grade level, and in many cases, their performance puts them in the bottom 5 percent nationally.

Parents shouldn’t have to wait years at a time or have attorneys on speed dial just to ensure their children’s schools provide basic literacy instruction. Nor should taxpayers be on the hook for the state’s legal bills.

Expanding education options through education savings accounts would help students and taxpayers alike.

Under current ESA programs in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina, parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s current public-school education may opt out, and their states deposit most or all of students’ associated state basic-formula funding into dedicated ESAs instead. Public schools keep the remaining associated non-formula local, state, and federal funding for at least one year.

With ESA funds, parents pay for tuition, tutoring, testing, and other approved education services that best meet their children’s unique needs. Under some ESA programs, the unused funds roll over for future education expenses, including college tuition. Quarterly expense reporting and independent audits help ensure ESA funds aren’t misspent—a win-win for students and taxpayers.

California could improve on existing ESA models by funding them with tax-credit contributions instead of state funding. Similar to the 23 tax-credit scholarship programs currently operating in 18 states, non-profit organizations would collect donations to fund student ESAs. Donors would receive credits against their state income taxes.

Right now California corporations are allowed to claim up to $1.5 billion in Research and Development Tax Credits annually, while Hollywood filmmakers can claim up to $330 million. There’s no good reason California taxpayers shouldn’t be allowed to make tax-credit donations to student ESAs as well.

More than 40 years ago, in its 1976 Serrano v Priest ruling, the California Supreme Court recommended publicly funded voucher scholarships as a constitutionally permissible remedy for disparities in education funding and performance. ESAs are an even better remedy because they empower parents to choose how, not just where, their children are educated, which customizes learning in ways that no one-size-fits-all system could ever match—no matter how lavishly funded.

***

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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