Brittinie Gleave: A public educator with private school kids explains why HB331 won’t work

The rules that apply to public schools should follow public money into private education.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Victoria Hampton, James Higgins and Seth Ahlers play on the playground during recess at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City Tuesday January 4, 2011.

If passed, House Bill 331 would allow tax dollars to be used towards private tuition. As a public educator, I know my stance should oppose this bill. However, as a parent who sent my children to private schools, I found myself grappling with it.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to use the tax dollars earmarked for my children towards the education that I thought was the best fit for them, instead of scrimping and sacrificing for all those years? Obviously.

Also (and this really strains political ties), could a little market-place competitiveness give the public education system a needed jolt, as it seems to stagnate in response to a changing world? Through this grappling, I can say that, while tuition assistance and systemic changes would be great for me personally, this bill should not be public policy.

My experience with public schools growing up was not stellar. Because of this (in addition to childcare considerations), when it came time to send my children to school, I looked for other options.

I ultimately decided on one parochial and one private (to fit the needs of different children) for elementary and middle, and public for high school. Meantime, I earned a master’s in teaching and headed directly into public education with some, though still naive, understanding of its complexities.

Utah is rooted in personal choice, personal responsibility. I exercised this state value in making these choices and being responsible for the costs. Financial aid was available without tapping tax dollars.

While it might feel like I’m entitled to those tax dollars, I am not. It is not a personal savings account that I have invested in for my own children that I get to withdraw for whichever educational services I choose. Rather, every taxpaying citizen funds it, with or without schoolchildren and with differing religious, political and social views. Having children doesn’t give me more access to it or choices about it.

Individualized, personal choices cannot be publicly funded without possibly violating religious or political liberty. Instead, public money is to be used for what the public deems educationally valuable. In our current state of division, what we “deem as a whole” feels paltry — probably part of what feels sluggish about public education. Society is fired up and ready for change. But, maybe instead of scrapping public education for parts, we should be clutching it as our last best hope at unity.

Also contributing to stagnation are endless accountability measures and standardized practices. These are what ensure that today’s students have better experiences than I did. It’s not actually stagnant, but it is systematic in ensuring free and fair education for all and proving to stakeholders, through transparency and accountability, that achievement is occurring.

The system can feel slow and bulky. This bill, and voucher bills like it, try to create a loophole whereby public money no longer must be accounted for in these ways. Sponsors justify it by claiming that public schools should rise to compete in a market-driven system, but pulling money out while leaving the requirements will only make public education more cumbersome and less competitive.

All rules that have been foisted upon public ed need to follow public money. Private school students receiving publicly funded scholarships should be screened, benchmarked and high stakes assessed as frequently as their public counterparts. Private schools should not be allowed to select which students they admit but take all applicants. They should be graded by the state, with penalties for failure to meet minimum goals. It would only be fair play.

If this is not the direction people behind this bill want to go, they can exercise their school choice through their financial choices. Or they can use their legislative powers for good and help cut through some of the complicated bureaucracy. From a parent and public educator, we welcome changes that will make the system more agile and limber in meeting students’ and society’s goals.

Brittinie Gleave

Brittinie Gleave, Murray, teaches for an elementary school in Granite School District.