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Letter: Education freedom in North Dakota among the worst in U.S.

Jackson writes, "A recent study found North Dakota ranks 44 out of 51 on an Education Freedom Index of U.S. states. When it comes to education freedom for families, North Dakota is the lowest ranking state in the region and among the worst in the nation."

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For many facets of our daily lives—from what clothes to wear, food to eat or car to drive—there are as many opinions and preferences as there are people. The same is true for educating our children. However, unlike the many options we have for our clothes, food and transportation, North Dakotans have limited choices when it comes to our children’s education.

A recent study found North Dakota ranks 44 out of 51 on an Education Freedom Index of U.S. states. When it comes to education freedom for families, North Dakota is the lowest ranking state in the region and among the worst in the nation.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that EFI rankings are based on how red or blue a state is. The top 15 states include progressive states such as Minnesota (3), Wisconsin (4), Michigan (10) and California (12); and conservative states such as Arizona (1), Texas (6) and South Dakota (15).

Why is education freedom important? In addition to allowing households the opportunity to choose the educational model that matches their unique needs and perspectives, education freedom is associated with increased educational outcome s as measured by average scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress . An analysis by the study’s authors demonstrated a clear, positive association between EFI and the NAEP, even after controlling for the effects of per-pupil state spending, student/teacher ratio and teacher quality. Interestingly, while EFI is positively associated with increased NAEP, the association with per-pupil spending is negative. Just throwing additional money at the educational system with the expectation of increased outcomes is not realistic.

This should give North Dakotans a wake-up call. Not only does our EFI ranking demonstrate that North Dakota families have fewer educational choices than our neighboring states, but our state spending on K-12 has ballooned over the last decade, with school district average per-pupil expenditures increasing by 50% from 2005 to 2018.

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What can be done to increase educational freedom and educational outcomes in North Dakota? Here are two viable policy options that our legislators should consider: first, a provision allowing charter public schools, and second, tax credits or deductions for private and homeschool tuition expenses.

North Dakota is one of five states that has no legislation permitting the establishment of public charter schools. Public charter schools are schools that are publicly funded yet operate independently of local public school districts. Because charter schools are publicly funded, students who attend them do not pay tuition as they would at a private school. Charter schools are held accountable to an authorizing agency and the terms, organization and mission spelled out in their “charter.” Because charter schools are independent of local school districts, they are not subject to many of the same regulations as traditional public schools. This allows charter public schools to exercise greater flexibility and offer a unique, and free, educational alternative to traditional public schools. Charter schools have proven an effective way to maintain educational quality, increase school options for families and control the cost of public education. There is a large body of evidence that the presence of charter schools increases educational outcomes for both students attending the charter and students in the nearby school district.

Private schools and homeschooling also offer options to traditional public schools. Unfortunately, private schools are only a realistic alternative for those with financial means to afford them. Unlike charter schools, students attending private schools are responsible to pay tuition and provide their own transportation to and from school. While students attending private schools pay tuition, their families also pay tax dollars to support local school districts which no longer have to pay for the educational costs of those students. The same is true for homeschooled students. School choice policies can provide tax relief to families choosing private or homeschool education. A family’s choices for their children’s education should not be limited by their financial means.

Tax relief can be provided through a number of potential policy levers, including income tax credits and deductions or the establishment of tax-sheltered education savings accounts. Many states have created private school tuition vouchers to directly assist low-income households with gaining access to private school options.

The pandemic has demonstrated that many families have differing needs and preferences regarding the schooling of our children. Increasing educational freedom is an effective way to give families more options while improving educational outcomes and keeping cost under control.

Jackson is the director of the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise and professor of economics at North Dakota State University. His views are his own.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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