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Kafer: Allow Colorado 529 plans to pay for K-12 private schools

Last year I was a guest teacher — that’s what they call substitutes these days — at dozens of public K-12 schools, charter schools, and one private high school. In addition to relearning how to calculate the area of a trapezoid and how to make fake blood from red ink (thank you fifth-grade boys), I came away from the experience with a collage of impressions. These weren’t the first. Long before I became a columnist, I was a school evaluator for the state of Colorado and the federal government. All told, I’ve spent time in well over 100 K-12 schools.

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Every school feels different. The quality of the leadership, teaching, and curricula impacts student performance as well as the school environment. But the feeling I’m referring to is more than just the sum of these parts. Some schools function as a tight-knit community of teachers, administrators, students, and parents united in a single mission. This unity of purpose was present more often in the charter schools and private schools I’ve visited. Everyone wanted to be there, chose to be there, and it mattered.

Much has been written about the academic benefits of attending a public charter school or a private school with a scholarship, namely greater reading and math proficiency and higher graduation rates. Other studies, such as two that were just published, show a correlation between increased charter school enrollment and greater educational achievement for low-income and minority students in urban areas. In other words, even kids who remained within district-run public schools benefited from the competitive effects of nearby charter schools. Research shows similar competitive effects from voucher programs.

The case for expanding school choice in Colorado on academic grounds alone is strong; little more than a third of our 8th graders were proficient in reading and math on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. That was before the pandemic took its toll on academic achievement.

Like most states, Colorado authorizes charter schools, a type of public school that has the liberty to set its own curricula, hiring practices, and pedagogical approaches. Top charter schools have long waiting lists, however, and hopeful kids wait to gain entrance by luck of a lottery. We need more options.

Thirty-two states have enacted private school tuition support programs (e.g., scholarships/vouchers, tax credits/deductions for private school expenses, or education savings accounts) to help families afford private schools. Colorado is well equipped to expand school choice opportunities thanks to the existing 529 college savings accounts. Currently, parents and other contributors can save money tax-free for tuition at public and private colleges, universities, and trade schools. Contributions to a CollegeInvest account, up to a certain amount, can be deducted from state taxable income. Eligible beneficiaries (students) can apply for up to $8,000 in state-awarded scholarships through the program and low and middle-income families can apply for up to $5,000 in matching funds.

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House Bill 1019 would expand 529 college savings accounts to enable parents to save for tuition at K-12 private schools. The average tuition at Colorado’s private schools is $12,357 a year according to Private School Review. Remove the dozen or so most expensive private schools and tuition for the average private school compares well to Colorado’s per-pupil funding for public schools ($8,489).

Increasing access to more school options will benefit students who attend independent schools as well as the students who remain within the public school system as research suggests. There is another benefit in store; broadening school choice will defuse some of the contentiousness in education itself.

Since their inception in the 1850s, public schools have never been free of controversy and disputes. When I attended Jeffco Public Schools, the phonics versus whole language reading battle was in full swing. The quarrel seems tame in light of today’s conflicts. Consider headlines from the past week or two: Parents in Aspen protested mask mandates. The Douglas Country School District voted to change its controversial equity policy. The state school board is considering contentious social studies standards. A school held a vaccine clinic that didn’t verify kids’ ages. A man verbally abused school staff at an elementary school that supports Black Lives Matter. A lawmaker introduced legislation to guarantee parents can see what written materials and electronic resources are used in the classroom.

If parents had a greater ability to choose the school that best met their students’ needs why would it matter what another school was doing? These controversies would become largely irrelevant. Don’t like the school’s policies, pedagogy, or programs? You can go elsewhere.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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