OUR OPINION: Voucher-like path not right for state

By NEMS Daily Journal

There is much to like in the education proposals for the 2013 legislative session that Gov. Phil Bryant unveiled last week.
The focus on recruiting outstanding students to be teachers and rewarding top teachers with performance pay incentives could help raise teacher quality, the most important component in a child’s learning.
Expenditures Bryant proposes on programs to improve reading get at the foundation of all successful learning.
The governor’s focus on charter school options for students in low-performing schools, as opposed to a more sweeping charter law, is a reasonable approach that we favor.
But Bryant’s proposal to give tax credits totaling up to $10 million for low-income students to attend private schools is an eyebrow-raiser. Like the broader voucher system used in some places, it diverts tax dollars – indirectly, but still at public expense – into private schools, which isn’t a good idea. That’s particularly true in a state like Mississippi, where so many private schools were started for the overt purpose of avoiding racial integration.
If individuals, businesses and private schools are truly concerned about low-income kids trapped in failing schools, they can provide those opportunities without the benefit of tax dollars. Some private schools do. Mississippi’s public resources are limited, more so than most states, and they shouldn’t be diverted from the public schools.
Charter schools are a different matter. Though they’re free from many regulations governing traditional public schools, they’re still subject to the same accountability standards and public transparency. Not so with private schools.
Mississippi’s constitution prohibits direct transfer of public funds to religious or nonsectarian private schools. That makes a direct voucher system untenable, but tax credits may get around that legality. We shouldn’t try to find out if such a plan would hold up under a court challenge.
Instead, Mississippi’s resources and efforts should be directed toward meaningful reforms of the existing system and encouragement of different kinds of innovation within the public sphere.
Improving teacher quality, continuing to raise academic rigor and accountability standards, adopting a no-tolerance policy for school failure, increasing school readiness and providing the necessary financial resources to get the job done are all critical to improving Mississippi students’ academic performance. Diverting public dollars from public to private schools shouldn’t be in the mix.