School choice isn't really a choice

Tanya Keith does the math: tax credits to support “school choice” would mainly help families who can afford to send their kids to private school anyway. -promoted by desmoinesdem

When I hear people talking about “school choice,” I wonder if they really know what’s involved in choosing a school that’s not your neighborhood public school. We knew we wanted our oldest of three kids to attend the Downtown School, an open enrollment school within Des Moines Public Schools, and we put her on the list before she was born. I was thrilled to learn that she made the list in Kindergarten, but I was naïve to the effort it would take to complete her education there.

We are raising the only grandchildren in a family where both grandmothers are experts in early childhood education, so I was willing to go the extra mile for a top quality education for my children. What I didn’t realize is I would be going the extra 12.2 miles, every day, all school year long. Our first five years, we drove 6.1 miles each way to get our child to school. Let’s do a little math with that:

12.2 miles x $.54 (the IRS mileage allowance for 2016) x 174 school days = $1,146.31

That’s one child at one school, but that’s not the end of the expense.

When our first started school, I open a shop in downtown Des Moines called Simply for Giggles. I couldn’t count on leaving work every day at 3:15 to pick up our child, so we paid $25 per day (per child) for after care. So let’s add that in:

$25 x 174 days is $4,350 plus the travel money is $5,496.31, and that’s before we even discuss compensating the time we spent driving 15 minutes each way and waiting in the school pick up and drop off lines.

At the time, there was a bus stop at the end of our driveway that would have taken our child to our neighborhood public school. I had never added up the $5,496.31 number, but there were many mornings I thought about how easy my life would be if I just needed to get my daughter to the end of the driveway. Then I would hear my mother’s voice in my head describing the Downtown School as “how children should be educated across this country” and I would get in my car and take her.

Today, we have two children open enrolling and a third that is a future DMPS student, and we live in an inner city neighborhood in Des Moines. The majority of our neighbors qualify for free or reduced school lunch, so I highly doubt they could afford $5,496.31 to drive their kids to school every day for their “choice.” They count on our neighborhood school giving their child as good an education as my children. There are many exciting things happening at our neighborhood school, but it remains to be seen if it could earn my early childhood expert mom’s seal of approval.

We looked at four different DMPS middle schools for our oldest and selected Meredith Middle School because it was the only school that offered Chinese as a foreign language. We liked that our daughter would be exposed to the 43 different languages spoken at home among the Meredith students, but with a high enough percentage of free and reduced lunch at that school to qualify for 100% free lunch, I’m guessing most students there could not choose to attend as our daughter does. Let’s look at the numbers for having two kids at two different schools:

12.6 miles x $.54 per mile x 174 days = $1,183.90 plus 2 kids in aftercare $8,700 = $9,883.90

Almost $10K to attend public school of choice. That doesn’t include the $200 per year we spend on supplies, PTA fees, fundraiser donations, or any of the other incidental costs of public school. I do not have the inclination or time to home school my kids, but I have many friends who do. I know there are already resources available to them through the school district, and I also know they don’t have to comply with the rigorous testing my kids must, leaving them more time for instruction. For most dual earner families, home school isn’t a realistic choice, but let’s evaluate private school as an option.

I called Bergman Academy today as a prospective parent of my almost two-year-old. I consider Bergman to be my nuclear option. If the public schools become completely unbearable, that would be my first non-public choice. Here’s the gut-punch I learned: Bergman Academy costs $8,950 per year preK- grade 8, and you don’t just get to walk into Kindergarten. When I mentioned our child is not even two, she encouraged me to get on the list for 3 year old pre-K right away, as there is often a 2 year wait. She told me it was critical to get enrolled in pre-K, because “if you do not have your child in preschool, you will likely not get a spot in Kindergarten.” So I’d be spending almost $30k to just get my child a placement for Kindergarten. But I’d have to drive there too!

9.6 miles x .54 per mile x 174 days = $902.02 plus tuition $9,852.02 per child per year.
And I would only be able to work 8:30 am – 3 pm.

The proposed tax credits do not give the poorest families a chance at a private school education. We can afford to have me stay home part time and it is still out of reach for our middle-class family for even one of our three children. By taking money out of the public schools that can only possibly benefit the wealthiest of families, we are doing a huge disservice to our country. We all benefit from a well-educated society. We must ensure that our public schools are able to serve all our citizens, and the only path to doing so is a great public school in every neighborhood.

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  • No school buses?

    Where I live the church school kids and the public school kids ride the same bus to school. Your transportation costs are not a factor for everyone.

    The Iowa bill is not for tax credits that you claim on your IA 1040. It is a voucher bill. We public school folks would be paying a big chunk of your tuition for you.

    Your point is still valid but you have overstated the costs most people would face. This bill is not so much for helping parent pocketbooks anyway. It is mainly a way to undercut public institutions so that churches or profiteers can take over education eventually.

    • Separation of Church and State

      Using public funds (public school buses) to send kids to a religious school only helps people in the religious majority. I’m Jewish, many in my neighborhood are Muslim. Getting a school bus trip to a non-secular school doesn’t help us and public education is about education for all, not just the wealthy or just the majority religion.

      There is not busing available to Bergman Academy, so anyone wanting to choose that option would incur the fees I spoke about.

      Your point on tax credits is correct. I’m aware the proposal is for a voucher, but in real life, I restore historic homes often using tax credits, so that’s the name that is first in my mind.