Joe Cavaretta, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Students arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, FL, on the first day of school Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said Wednesday that the start of a new school year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland is "a challenging time" for students, teachers and other school employees.

The 50th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is reporting an ominous finding about school safety: One-third of American parents fear for their child’s safety at school. That is a jump from just 12 percent reporting themselves fearful five years ago.

The apprehension climbs to 48 percent among parents with less than $50,000 in household income. It also exceeds 40 percent “among urban parents, nonwhites, and those without college degrees,” PDK reports.

No doubt school shootings have elevated the fear level. However, federal statistics additionally indicate near-epidemic levels of school bullying and harassment, with 135,000 individually reported incidents in 2015–16 alone.

Meanwhile, the other big poll that comes out during back-to-school season, produced by EdNext, shows a significant surge of support for parental choice among varied educational options. Support for the idea of giving “all families with children in public schools a wider choice by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping pay the tuition” rose by 9 percentage points.

That amounts to the universal choice for which Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman long advocated. The vast majority of current private-choice programs are, by contrast, need-based.

" No doubt school shootings have elevated the fear level. However, federal statistics additionally indicate near-epidemic levels of school bullying and harassment, with 135,000 individually reported incidents in 2015–16 alone. "

Support for universal choice rose to 54 percent this year, after standing at just 45 percent in 2017. Remarkably enough, given all the partisan scorn heaped on President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for their promotion of school choice, support for universal choice climbed among Republicans (up 10 points, to 64 percent) and Democrats (up 7 points, to 47 percent).

With these results in mind, it’s perfectly logical to conclude that it’s well past time to put universal choice to work as a way to spread the benefits of safe schools widely across the United States.

Florida is already leading the way, as it so often has in school choice. Through legislation passed in the spring, it now allows buyers of motor vehicles to donate their sales tax to fund private school scholarships for students who have been bullied or physically attacked at school. The program also permits victimized students to transfer to another public school.

My colleagues at The Heartland Institute have developed a similar proposal for universal Child Safety Accounts, which would enable parents who have a “reasonable apprehension” for their child’s emotional or physical safety to quickly move him or her to a safer school. Modeled on education savings accounts adopted in a half-dozen states, a Child Safety Account would empower parents to draw on state funds to find secure schooling from among a wide array of options, including public district, charter, virtual, private, parochial or home school. (You can read more about Child Safety Accounts here)

The PDK poll usefully examines public attitudes toward differing approaches public authorities might take to guard schools against mass shootings such the one that occurred at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February. However, it doesn’t offer much insight that might be helpful to thwart constant bullying, harassment or hazing.

For instance, PDK found overwhelming support among parents for mental-health screening (76 percent), metal detectors at entrances (74 percent) and armed police in the schools (80 percent). While pointing out that nearly two-thirds of parents oppose the idea of teachers and staff being able to carry guns to school, PDK then concedes that “support for allowing armed teachers and staff rises to 49 percent if training and screening programs are in place” — something that surely sensible school administrators would require in any event.

1 comment on this story

It would be wonderful if schools and other public officials in all localities devised ways to better secure schools from murderous attacks launched from outside or from weapons smuggled into schoolhouses. However, many of the most insidious threats to a child’s well-being occur largely out of sight, in places such as playgrounds, chat rooms, cafeterias, school buses and restrooms.

School choice would give families more relief from the bullying/harassing form of violence than a whole battalion of school resource officers ever could.