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From a guy who loves Catholic schools, some unloving words about school vouchers

Public schools across South Dakota can’t afford to lose funding to private-school vouchers

First, a confession, which is something a Catholic guy — particularly a Catholic guy of my age — is sort of conditioned to make: “I’m biased toward Catholic schools.”

I especially like the Catholic-school system in Sioux Falls. But then, that’s where my former wife and I sent our son and daughter. And they had a great experience. So did we.

It was well worth the money we paid in tuition and fees over the years. Their Catholic-school education prepared them to do well in college at the undergraduate level, and after that in their pursuit of degrees in medicine and the law.

I also liked the regular masses for students, the religion classes, the school dress code or “uniforms,” the discipline and the structure. The community, too.

I know some others who haven’t had such positive experiences in Catholic or other private schools. I’m sure Catholic schools, like any schools, vary in quality. And some kids and parents just don’t like the way they operate, or think the cost is worth it.

But I assume most parents who send their kids to a Catholic system or another private-school system would agree with me on the quality of the education and value of the overall experience for their kids.

Where some of us might disagree is on the subject of school vouchers, which is a form of tuition reimbursement, or whatever you’d like to call it, of public tax dollars for those who send their kids to private school.

This voucher bill died, but the idea lives on

I think now and have long thought that vouchers are a bad idea, even though they might seem like a good idea to some. One of those is Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids.

Hansen was the lone sponsor this state legislative session of House Bill 1234, which would have made taxpayer money available to parents who send their kids to accredited non-public schools. I say “would have” because the bill died on an 11-4 vote in the House Education Committee, which I think was the right vote.

Still, it’s worth talking about, and thinking about. Because like so many issues that end up in the Legislature and fail, this one won’t go away. not for good. There are voucher programs in some school in 16 states and a committed group of voucher proponent in this state.

So, sure, vouchers will be back.

HB1234 would have made a graduated entry into the world of transferring public funds to private schools. It would have allowed parents to submit applications for vouchers to the state Department of Education. Beginning this fall, the vouchers would have been good for K-3 students, moving to K-7 students the following year and K-12 students the year after that and beyond.

The vouchers would have covered the lesser of the tuition charged by the private institution or the per-student state aid paid to public schools based on their student populations. If any student didn’t finish the school year at a non-public school, the pro-rated voucher funds would be returned to the Education Department.

But none of it should leave the public school system to begin with. It’s public money, for public schools. And the commitment and responsibility to provide a free public education isn’t a new idea. It’s a constitutional idea, as in the South Dakota Constitution, which reads in part:

“The stability of a republican form of government depending on the morality and intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all; and to adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

And as taxpaying citizens, it’s our duty to support that system of free public schools.

Making your choice with your checkbook, not public money

Just because my first wife, Jaciel, and I decided to send our kids to a Catholic-school system didn’t mean we were absolved of our responsibilities as citizens to support public schools. You don’t stop being a citizen because you decide to become a private-school parent. You are both. You must be both.

Republican state Rep. Steve Duffy of District 32 — my district — touched on that in a recent legislative cracker barrel here in Rapid City. But before I get to Duffy’s point, indulge me — as you are so often asked to do here — a brief digression, about cracker barrels.

You probably know or might have guessed that the name of legislative cracker barrels comes from the wooden barrels of crackers that many stores across the nation had in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Quite naturally, people would stand around or near the barrels and chat, perhaps grabbing a cracker or two. Eventually, of course, boxed crackers were seen as a much better idea than open barrels, and these days cracker barrels are more likely to offer coffee and doughnuts.

But the cracker-barrel name and its metaphor for a public gathering and discussion lives on.

Voucher talk hasn’t been around as long as the “cracker barrel” name. But it has been around for a while. Quite a while. And sometimes it takes shape in legislation before the South Dakota Legislature.

Which brings us back to HB1234, the Rapid City cracker barrel and Steve Duffy.

The Fort Pierre native said went to public schools. But he and his wife, Republican state Sen. Helene Duhamel of District 32, sent their children to a Catholic-school system in Rapid City.

“We just made a decision with our checkbook,” Duffy said. “If you want to do that, good on you. But I always push for public schools.”

There’s a very good reason for that, he said: “If you don’t have a good public-education system, you have nothing.”

Nothing, perhaps, but a population of under educated or poorly educated citizens.

Advocates for vouchers say they’re not trying to destroy public schools but simply believe that some parents and students need and deserve affordable educational options elsewhere. I assume their beliefs are genuine.

Advocates argue state funding should follow student

In a news release promoting HB1234, Jon Hansen said the legislation “recognizes that every parent deserves the freedom to choose the best education option for their child. In South Dakota that may very well be the general and uniform public school, or it may be a non-public school better suited to each child’s unique circumstances. We must ensure that parents are in the driver’s seat for their children’s education by making funding follow the student and not the system.”

Personal choice is wonderful. My first wife and I made a joint personal choice to sacrifice certain things in order to pay tuition and other costs of sending our kids to a private-school system. Lots of the parents we met in that system made more money than we did. Some were more in our income category or even less, and they made a decision to sacrifice even more than we did for that Catholic education.

Some others were taking advantage of scholarship or work-at-school options to help over costs for their kids. Fundraising for private-school scholarships is and should be an essential part of every private-school system. That’s fundraising from sources other than public-school funds.

And personal choice also has its limits when it comes to a private-school education. That’s a reality of life and economics. My kids looked hard and considered a number of colleges to find schools that offered what they wanted but would still be within their financial grasp, their tolerance for debts loads and their abilities to pay it back.

One chose a public university system, the other a Catholic university system.

Much earlier in the education process, parents and their kids have to make difficult choices between public and private educations, based on what they want, what they can afford and what they’re willing to sacrifice.

But stable, increasing funding for the public-education system must exist separate and secure from all that.

One of the many problems I see with vouchers is that typically they give the same refund benefits to everyone, regardless of income. So wealthy citizens who can afford and in some cases easily afford private-school tuition get the same vouchers as those who can’t.

Meanwhile, a public-school system in South Dakota that struggles to support itself continues to rank at or near the bottom in teacher pay nationally. Taking money from that system for private-school vouchers would only worsen the public-schools struggle and jeopardize the quality of our constitutionally mandated system.

There are simply things private schools can’t or won’t do

Republican state Rep. Dennis Krull of Hill City spoke of that concern at the cracker barrel. Krull referred to his experience on the Hill City Board of Education and his worries about how, with money subtracted for vouchers, public schools would continue to meet the complex array of obligations to serve students, including special-needs students.

“But we won’t have funding to take care of them because public funds went to private schools,” Krull said.

Krull touches on something that affects many families, including ours. Public schools typically face obligations and offer services not required or within the capabilities of private schools. While the Catholic system served my son and daughter very well, I’m convinced that another member of our family — a grandchild — could not have made it in such a system.

This youngster, who is plenty intelligent, required and still requires special-ed services not available in the Catholic system. Beyond that, there’s the question of tolerance. It’s doubtful that a private school — at least not those I have known — would tolerate the behavioral challenges our grandson brought and sometimes still brings to the classroom.

We are grateful for a tolerant, helpful, creatively supportive team of public-school educators that has been and is committed to providing an education — despite the many challenges — for our grandchild.

So, yes, I love Catholic schools as an amazing educational option for many students. But I also know that our society needs a strong, constitutionally based public-school system that should not be threatened by the loss of crucial funding to pay for private-school vouchers.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.