Guest MINDSETTER™ Luis Vargas: Rhode Island Families Deserve a Choice

Friday, May 22, 2015


My story

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I doubt many if any of you know who I am, so let me start by saying that my name is Luis Vargas and I am a product of school choice. What I mean by that is that who I am today, the person that wrote this piece, would not exist if it were not for my parents making a choice about their child’s education. I live in the south side of providence – I have lived there since my parents moved to Rhode Island from Puerto Rico in search of a better life when I was just 2 years old. I was enrolled in public education through 7th grade, where I attended Feinstein Elementary School on Broad Street, and then went to Gilbert Stuart Middle School off of Elmwood Avenue. The year that I was in 7th grade, my parents began receiving letters explaining that the test scores at Gilbert Stuart were below the national average, and these letters worried them. Wanting a better education for their child, my mom started to work over 60 hours a week as a phlebotomist at the Rhode Island Blood Center and my father, a diesel mechanic and owner of a small trucking business here in Rhode  Island, started taking longer trips away from home to drop off cargo - New York, Georgia, Virginia – at times gone for days. They did this so that I could have the best education possible. Their sacrifice led to me discovering my passion for the law and public service in 8th grade through a mock trial program at my private school, graduating high school as salutatorian of my class, and studying for four years at Roger Williams University in the fields of legal studies and political science. I have taken the law school admissions test and I have begun applying to law schools, but I am just one of the few in my family who have made it to this point. My entire extended family wanted a good education, of course, but not everyone in my family was able to afford to do what my parents did for me. As a result, some of my family made it to where I am, some have graduated high school and immediately had to enter the workforce, but some are now behind bars after dropping out of school. School Choice is about changing the circumstances by which so many children can arrive at such different educational outcomes. School choice is about more of our future students ending up at URI instead of the ACI. 

By The Numbers

School choice just makes sense. First, it helps improve educational outcomes for those who need it the most. A recent study in the Journal of Public Economics by professors at the Harvard Kennedy School concluded that school choice helps minorities the most – increasing college enrollment by 10% and increasing the chance that a minority will graduate college by 35% versus their public school peers. Second, school choice also has a national history of saving taxpayer dollars: Florida has a school choice program and it has saved almost a billion dollars since its inception while raising graduation rates and overall spending per pupil on education, according to a school voucher audit by the Friedman Foundation. Third, despite what opponents would argue, there is not one state that has school vouchers where public school students who stayed in public school were adversely affected by school choice programs – in fact, in many states, there have been positive effects for those who stay in the public school system despite having access to a voucher system.

School Choice in Rhode Island

Rhode Islanders have a great opportunity to enact the most innovative school choice program in the nation. That’s right, Rhode Island can be #1 in a good category for once. There is a bill up for debate at the state house called the Bright Today Scholarship and Open Enrollment Act. The bill would establish a system by which parents are given access to a government-issued savings account, and can then spend that money on educational expenses – school tuition, tutoring, therapy for special-needs children, and more – the function would mirror that of an EBT card. The account would be capped at $6,000 no matter where the student is in the state, and it would be income-adjusted based on the needs of the child. A portion of the account would then be used to establish an administrative organization that could help promote the savings accounts and establish connections with those communities that need this program the most. No state with this type of program has a usage above 3%, so it would not shake up our entire public education system. Instead, it would provide us with the opportunity to help those who need it the most while also helping our bottom-line – it is a true win-win for Rhode Islanders. 

Every thirty seconds a child drops out of high school, and after reading this story about 15 kids will have dropped out. How many more students could we be helping by empowering their parents to get involved in their child’s education? The time is now to act on school choice in Rhode Island – call your legislator and ask them to support the Bright Today Scholarship and Open Enrollment Act.

Luis Vargas is a former candidate for State Representative against Joseph Almeida in District 12 of Providence, and an advisor to the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.


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