PROVIDENCE — If the COVID-19 pandemic did education in the U.S. any favors, Ed Bastia says that “it brought the classrooms into the living rooms and into the homes of the families” in such a way that “parents now want more independence and want more involvement in their child’s education.”
Bastia leads the volunteer group Rhode Island Families for School Choice, which advocates for school choice locally. On Jan. 22, in affiliation with the organization National School Choice Week, the group will host a School Choice Fair at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick from noon to 3 p.m.
The purpose of the event is to educate parents on alternatives to public schools, with 27 schools represented, some of which are Catholic, Christian or Hebrew; others are online or technical schools. Hera Varmah from the American Federation for Children, herself a tax-credit scholarship recipient, will keynote the event. The day will also include fun family activities such as a photo booth, music, face painting, snacks and raffle prizes.
Bastia would like to see families come to the event to learn about the options available for their children’s education, both for those students currently enrolled in school and for their future educational needs. Additionally, he hopes that parents may become more aware of the need for increased legislative measures to provide their children with the best education possible.
Currently, parents who want to send their children to a Catholic school within the Diocese of Providence can apply for the Education Corporate Tax Credit Program to assist with tuition costs. Passed in 2006, the General Assembly capped funding for this at $1.5 million with its 2012 expansion.
“It hasn’t been raised since then. Now, the question one needs to ask is how much the cost of education has increased in those 10 years and why hasn’t this program increased?” Bastia stated.
The state of Rhode Island currently spends $2.4 billion on education each year, yet only about 500 students are eligible for the tax credit.
“Parents want the option to send their kids to schools of their choice; parents who are enrolled in public schools and are looking for alternatives truly do not have an alternative,” Bastia said.
If the tax credit is expanded, he explained, “more kids could take advantage of that, and what would that mean? That means one less kid would be sitting in a public school. That would mean one more family would be able to enroll their child in a school of their choice. That means more businesses would have access to a little more tax credit offered to them through the state of Rhode Island.”
Compared to the amount of tax credits that the state allots for things like the entertainment industry, Bastia calls that $1.5 million for education “a drop in the bucket.” To see an increase, he continued, a representative in the General Assembly would need to make funding schools a priority. Parents can push for this by contacting their representatives as well as asking others to do the same, informing their legislators that not supporting school choice would cost them votes. “That’s when we will achieve school choice,” he said.
Sixteen other states already have school choice voucher programs, which Bastia says is still a long way off in Rhode Island. Indiana leads the way in the number of students eligible for aid – over 36,000 children in 92 counties utilize vouchers to obtain a quality education.
Bastia spoke of the impact a similar voucher program could have for all schools across Rhode Island, public and private alike.
“When a state embraces school choice … it becomes the rising tide that lifts all boats. Because what happens is it creates a competitive marketplace for education and families have choices,” giving schools an incentive to make improvements to compete for students.
Though he personally would not be affected by any school choice laws, Bastia still advocates for it “because it’s the right thing to do.”
In his previous work for the diocese in the Catholic Schools Office, he saw how many families sought tuition assistance when their students needed more than public schools could provide.
“We tried to help as best we could, but when the funds are limited and there are so, so many people that are looking for financial assistance, it’s very, very disheartening. … I realized parents want what’s offered; they just can’t afford to pay for it,” Bastia said.
This year the National School Choice Week will take place Jan. 22-28, and the School Choice Fair will be held on the first day of the nationwide celebration. Parents are invited to attend the event and learn more about options for their children and ways to continue advocating for education. For more information, contact Lucia Matamoros, National School Choice Awareness Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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