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OUR OPINION: Why N.D. doesn't choose school choice

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opinion Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks Herald
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Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

It’s the paradox of North Dakota’s supermajority Republican rule. And nowhere does it show up more clearly than in the Legislature’s refusal to pass key conservative K-12 reforms, including charter schools and a “private school choice” or voucher program.

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The paradox of North Dakota’s supermajority Republican rule is that on a number of issues, North Dakota does not behave like a state ruled by a Republican supermajority. Efforts to slash taxes fail at both the ballot box and in key votes in the Legislature. The same holds true efforts to replace North Dakota’s public-sector pension program with something like the private sector’s 401(k)s.

Likewise, charter-school proposals never seem to get traction; and in 2013, Bismarck Rep. Mark Dosch’s bill to give parents a voucher that they could use to pay for private-school tuition failed on a 31-63 vote.

Why?

Why hasn’t North Dakota eliminated its income tax, and why don’t Dosch’s and similar bills sail through?

The answer must be that on most issues regarding state and local government, North Dakotans still believe they get good value for their dollar.

And as teachers unions and others get ready to fend off another round of school-choice bills, that fact — much more than any ideas about the North Dakota Constitution — once again will be their best friend.

If, that is, North Dakotans continue to be broadly satisfied with the cost-effectiveness and quality of their local public schools. For North Dakota United and other foes of vouchers for private schools, maintaining that satisfaction should be Job 1.

True, the state constitution contains a ban on the use of certain public funds to support private schools. But 38 other states also have such bans, and at least 11 of the 38 also have private school choice programs (either statewide or, more commonly, in certain cities) that have survived court challenge.

School-choice advocates use various strategies in both drafting and defending their bills to achieve this. So, there’s every chance is a carefully drafted school-choice bill in North Dakota would be ruled constitutional, too.

Of course, the bill first would have to pass the Legislature, and that has proved to be a tall order. It’s likely to remain so, given that as recently as April, a Gallup poll revealed North Dakota to be the happiest state with its public schools.

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Tom Dennis
(701) 780-1276
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