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Letter: In North Dakota, school choice is limited to parents who can pay

Jackson writes, "Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded and do not charge tuition while operating independent of the public school district. Charter schools can take many forms in their administration, organization and curriculum, but one thing that is not contested is that public charter schools run more efficiently than traditional public schools."

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My recent letter on school choice generated a robust online conversation and responses published in this newspaper. That is exactly what I set out to do when I engage in editorial writing: stimulate debate. I especially applaud the recent piece by Nick Archuleta which avoided ad hominem attacks and proposed a counterargument. However, Archuleta makes several claims that I contest.

In his letter, Archuleta cites an unfavorable review of the study I mentioned in my original article. The review suffers from several problems. Most notably, the review argues that “the report ignores relevant peer-reviewed research that has found negative consequences of school choice reforms.” Besides demonstrating author bias, this claim does not fully represent the academic literature on school choice. Although it is true that some studies found public charter schools underperform compared to traditional public schools, there is also a large body of research showing public charter schools outperform their traditional school counterparts. Furthermore, the majority of studies and the current consensus seem to suggest that charter schools and traditional schools produce nearly identical academic outcomes.

Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded and do not charge tuition while operating independent of the public school district. Charter schools can take many forms in their administration, organization and curriculum, but one thing that is not contested is that public charter schools run more efficiently than traditional public schools. If both generate equal educational outcomes but one operates at a reduced cost, then there should be benefits to a system with both models.

Public charter schools are paid by the state at a per-pupil rate below the cost of traditional public schools. This generates a cost savings. In 2020, North Dakota’s per-pupil spending on K-12 education was $12,787 . In comparison, the highest tuition I found for a private school in North Dakota was $10,950 (a private high school in Fargo). Private school tuition for elementary and middle schools is thousands of dollars lower. If private schools can provide a quality education at a lower cost, the same could be true for public charter schools. Unfortunately, public charter schools are currently banned by North Dakota law.

Finally, Archuleta asserts that North Dakota already has school choice. This is demonstrably false and is what the study exposes. In North Dakota, school choice is limited to parents who can pay.

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It’s true that I could choose to drive a Ferrari, in the sense that Ferraris exist and no one is stopping me. Yet, given the state of my personal finances, driving a Ferrari is not an option for me. The truth is many families in North Dakota cannot afford to send their children to private schools or forego the income to provide homeschool. These options are as available to them as the Ferrari is to me. North Dakota has school choice for the wealthy but not for the poor.

What matters for our state is that tax dollars are used efficiently to provide families with the education they need. This is best done when all options are on the table and all families have a seat.

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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