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North Dakota public schools state their case amid voucher debate

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Mike Moen

(Prairie News Service) New research is sharpening the focus on the debate over public funding for private school vouchers. And with North Dakota kids back in class, those tied to public education are speaking out. 

The non-partisan Brookings Institution has just issued a research summary noting that in 2023 alone, seven states have passed new voucher programs - which shift some state funding for families to use for private school tuition. 

Supporters, namely GOP lawmakers and certain parent groups, say they allow for academic choice if a family is concerned about their public school's performance. 

Bismarck Superintendent Jeff Fastnacht said choice is fine, but there is another key factor to consider.

"I do think the public institutions provide the opportunity to ensure that every child," said Fastnacht, "regardless of where they come from, what demographic they come from - all have equal opportunities to gain the skills necessary to be successful in life."

Other public school supporters say they're required to keep working with students who might be struggling. But they add in a private school, those kids could find it harder to stay enrolled if they're not meeting expectations. 

The Brookings report notes research on traditional vouchers from the last decade strongly indicates they lower academic achievement.

North Dakota was among a group of conservative-led states to consider a school voucher bill this year, but it was vetoed. 

However, Nick Archuleta, president of the teacher's union North Dakota United, said he fears the issue won't go away, with lower test scores - linked to the pandemic - fueling more calls for vouchers. 

"Test scores don't tell the whole story," said Archuleta. "We have to find these kids where they are and start teaching them there. We should be measuring growth of the individual student."

Fastnacht said while Bismarck wasn't immune to the so-called "COVID slide," his district has shown signs of turning things around when it comes to academic performance. 

"Two years ago, 2021, Bismarck - along with almost all schools I knew of - saw a COVID slide," said Fastnacht. "But we've also seen a recovery in 2021 and 2022."

Another common argument from backers of vouchers is these programs spur more competition within education. 

Brookings authors say while there is limited evidence of that, other research suggests more direct funding of public schools has a greater impact.