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Port: School choice bill should give private school parents the same tools public school parents enjoy

"Why shouldn't parents who use public dollars to send their children to private schools enjoy the same level of access to the tools of transparency and accountability?"

Northwood school
Students return to school for the first day of classes at Northwood school.
Eric Hylden / Forum Communications

MINOT, N.D. โ€” School choice policies are a very good idea.

Education in our nation is compulsory, but unless you've achieved a certain degree of affluence, you don't have much of a choice regarding which schools your children attend. You pretty much have to go to whichever public school is closest to you.

A school choice policy aims to expand those choices, for everyone, by making public dollars available to follow a pupil to whatever nonpublic school their parents may choose.

House Bill 1532 , introduced by Rep. Claire Cory, a Republican from Grand Forks, aims to fund school choice. The bill, which has already passed the House on a 54-40 vote, would allow parents to get a third of the per-pupil state aid the state makes available in their school district, as calculated in section 15.1-27-04.1 of the North Dakota Century Code .

The money would only be available for schools, not home-schooling, and the public funds could only be used "to offset the cost of qualified education expenses the program participant or parent would otherwise be obligated to pay."

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It's good legislation, but I'm afraid some pieces are missing.

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Namely, transparency and accountability.

There are some hints of this in the bill. The state superintendent of schools is empowered to suspend any school from the program if he or she detects that they're not in compliance, so that's good. The bill also states that if "the superintendent of public instruction obtains evidence of fraudulent use of program funds, the superintendent shall refer the matter to the attorney general for investigation and prosecution," and that's good too.

But how would we detect if such abuses are taking place?

Parents who send their children to public schools (that includes your humble correspondent) have many tools available to help scrutinize those schools. School board meetings must be open to the public, as one example. State law requires these public boards to notify the public when a meeting is to be held and what is to be discussed, and the boards can only close those meetings to the public under certain very specific criteria.

With some exceptions, school records, up to and including emails sent by teachers and administrators, are also public records, as are personnel files, performance reports, and budget documents. Worried about misconduct from a teacher or administrator? Wondering how a school performs academically? Public records can either allay your fears or confirm your suspicions.

Why shouldn't parents who use public dollars to send their children to private schools enjoy the same level of access to the tools of transparency and accountability?

If HB 1532 passes, it could direct tens of millions of dollars to private schools, and that would be a good thing. That would mean thousands of parents have been empowered to choose for their children.

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But a mere choice isn't enough.

If HB 1532 passes, and I hope it does, it should give private school parents the same tools that public school parents enjoy.

And if the private schools don't like it? Easy solution. They needn't accept the public's money.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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