The Moral Imperative for School Choice
The encouraging school choice proposal by Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, discussed here, and the absurd response by Senator Chafee has led me to repost below an expanded version of a November 18, 2005 posting on the moral imperative for school choice.
Contrasting this week’s posting with an earlier posting on this issue – also by Andrew and entitled Cranston’s and Rhode Island’s Need for a Sensible School Choice Program – shows how Mayor Laffey and other Cranston leaders have evolved their policy solution in recent months in response to a genuine problem. The comments section of that earlier posting is alive with a debate about two issues: Should children from Providence – where public schools are mediocre – have the right to attend better schools in Cranston and what effect does this have on education funding flows? These are two central questions underlying the school choice debate.
School choice is a moral imperative because the performance of our schools greatly influences whether (i) our children have a clean shot at living the American Dream; and, (ii) whether our country can maintain the strength of its economy via a well educated citizenry capable of competing successfully in an increasingly global economy.
To provide an indepth review of the school choice debate, this posting is divided into nine sections. Each section is identified below and you can proceed directly to it by clicking on the title of that individual section below:
I. The Unavoidable & Serious Performance Problems with Public Education
II. The Current Problem in Rhode Island: Spending a Lot of Money & Getting No Return on our Investment
III. The Structural Problem with Public Education
IV. Myths Propagated by Defenders of the Status Quo
V. Defenders of the Status Quo: Bureaucrats, Politicians & Teachers’ Unions
VI. The Magnitude of Teachers’ Union Monies at Work to Maintain the Status Quo
VII. Irreversible Change has Begun
VIII. Elaborating on the Rationale for School Choice
IX. Why School Choice is a Moral Imperative
I. THE UNAVOIDABLE & SERIOUS PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS WITH PUBLIC EDUCATION
There is a huge and well-documented performance problem with public education in America and in Rhode Island. The long-term implications of this problem are severe. Patrick Callan describes the likely future impact on Rhode Island.
Maintaining the status quo is not a viable option.
II. THE CURRENT PROBLEM IN RHODE ISLAND: SPENDING A LOT OF MONEY & GETTING NO RETURN ON OUR INVESTMENT
As Tom Coyne points out in his February 22 analysis:
Rhode Islanders are some of the most generous people in the nation. The facts speak for themselves: As a percentage of our per capita state income, Rhode Island’s per pupil spending is the second highest in the country. Our per-pupil spending on [teacher] salaries and benefits is the nation’s highest. Our spending on students below the poverty line is the seventh highest in the nation. Rhode Island’s average teacher salary, as a percentage of its average private-sector worker’s salary, is the highest in the country, and has been since at least 1990. Rhode Island has the nation’s second highest number of teachers per student…And we also have the nation’s highest percentage of students in very expensive special education programs…
Yet, Tom’s November 17 posting shows we get a lousy return on this investment of our hard-earned monies:
The only tests taken by students in every state in the nation are the National Assessment of Educational Progress…On these tests, Rhode Island public school students perform poorly. Let’s look at 8th grade reading…the national average score was 260. Rhode Island scored 261 (ranking 31st in the country)…Rhode Island’s relative performance on 8th grade math was even worse. The national average score was 278. Rhode Island scored 272 (ranking 38th in the country)…
And what has been the outcome from this disconnect between lots of money invested and lousy performance results? The outcome is a sense of desperation in parents whose kids are trapped in schools that are failing them, a desperation easily understood when reviewing the abysmal performance data of the Providence schools on pages 4-7 of the above Cranston presentation.
Take a step back and ask what makes it necessary to have this debate in the first place? Just like it was ill-conceived government actions that made health insurance belong to companies instead of individual citizens, the school choice and related money issues are a structural problem created by unproductive government actions.
III. THE STRUCTURAL PROBLEM WITH PUBLIC EDUCATION & ITS CONSEQUENCES
Two previous postings define the structural problem with public education more clearly:
Parents or Government/Unions: Who Should Control Our Children’s Educational Decisions?
…Elementary and secondary education in America is in serious trouble because government has combined the appropriate role of financing the general education of children with the inappropriate role of owning and operating schools. It would be much better and more equitable, [Friedman] argued, if the government would “give each child, through his parents, a specified sum [voucher] to be used solely in paying for his general education…The result would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children.”…it is imperative to remember that what we are talking about is a question of who controls education: parents or government. And so long as the government both finances education and administers schools it can’t help but exert its power over parents…
Milton Friedman on School Choice
With respect to education,…government was playing three major roles: (1) legislating compulsory schooling, (2) financing schooling, (3) administering schools. I concluded that there was some justification for compulsory schooling and the financing of schooling, but “the actual administration of educational institutions by the government, the ‘nationalization,’ as it were, of the bulk of the ‘education industry’ is much more difficult to justify on [free market] or, so far as I can see, on any other grounds.” Yet finance and administration “could readily be separated. Governments could require a minimum of schooling financed by giving the parents vouchers redeemable for a given sum per child per year to be spent on purely educational services. . . . Denationalizing schooling,” I went on, “would widen the range of choice available to parents. . . . If present public expenditure were made available to parents regardless of where they send their children, a wide variety of schools would spring up to meet the demand. . . . Here, as in other fields, competitive enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demand than either nationalized enterprises or enterprises run to serve other purposes.”…
What really led to increased interest in vouchers was the deterioration of schooling, dating in particular from 1965 when the National Education Association converted itself from a professional association to a trade union…
…[The 1983 study] “A Nation at Risk” stimulated much soul-searching and a whole series of major attempts to reform the government educational system. These reforms, however extensive or bold, have, it is widely agreed, had negligible effect on the quality of the public school system. Though spending per pupil has more than doubled since 1970 after allowing for inflation, students continue to rank low in international comparisons; dropout rates are high; scores on SATs and the like have fallen and remain flat. Simple literacy, let alone functional literacy, in the United States is almost surely lower at the beginning of the 21st century than it was a century earlier. And all this is despite a major increase in real spending per student since “A Nation at Risk” was published.
There is a lot at stake here for our country and for our children’s ability to realize the American Dream. The problem is best stated in this excerpt from the “A Nation at Risk:”
For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.
Here is another quote from the report:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
That is a damning indictment of the status quo and those who support it.
IV. MYTHS PROPAGATED BY DEFENDERS OF THE STATUS QUO
Jay Greene’s recent book, Educational Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You To Believe About Our Schools – And Why It Isn’t So, “identifies, catalogues, and rebuts eighteen common myths that dominate education policy.”
…But by far the most important reason myths dominate education policy is that they are promoted by organized interests…Their goal is simply to advance their agendas; they are relatively indifferent to whether their claims are based on myths or facts…
He then identifies the myths, breaking them into four parts:
1. The Money Myth: Schools perform poorly because they need more money.
2. The Special Ed Myth: Special education programs burden public schools, hindering their academic performance.
3. The Myth of Helplessness: Social problems like poverty cause students to fail; schools are helpless to prevent it.
4. The Class Size Myth: Schools should reduce class sizes; small classes would produce big improvements.
5. The Certification Myth: Certified or more experienced teachers are substantially more effective.
6. The Teacher Pay Myth: Teachers are badly underpaid.
7. The Myth of Decline: Schools are performing much worse than they used to.
8. The Graduation Myth: Nearly all students graduate from high school.
9. The College Access Myth: Nonacademic barriers prevent a lot of minority students from attending college.
10. The High Stakes Myth: The results of high-stake tests are not credible because they’re distorted by cheating and teaching to the test.
11. The Push-Out Myth: Exit exams cause more students to drop out of high school.
12. The Accountability Burden Myth: Accountability systems impose large financial burdens on schools.
13. The Inconclusive Research Myth: The evidence on the effectiveness of vouchers is mixed and inconclusive.
14. The Exeter Myth: Private schools have higher test scores because they have more money and recruit high-performing students while expelling low-performing students.
15. The Draining Myth: School choice harms public schools.
16. The Disabled Need Not Apply Myth: Private schools won’t serve disabled students.
17. The Democratic Values Myth: Private schools are less effective at promoting tolerance and civic participation.
18. The Segregation Myth: Private schools are more racially segregated than public schools.
Read the book to see the data supporting the refutation of these myths.
V. DEFENDERS OF THE FAILED STATUS QUO: BUREAUCRATS, POLITICIANS & TEACHERS’ UNIONS
And who do you think defends ever increasing spending with no connection to performance outcomes? It is the education bureaucrats, many politicians, and the teachers’ unions – all of whom resist major reforms such as school choice or even more charter schools.
The Education Bureaucrats
Lawrence Uzzell, a former staff member of the US Department of Education and the US House and Senate Committees on education, wrote a policy paper entitled No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy. An excerpt of that paper, found here, is the single best synopsis I have found for describing the problems with federal and state education bureaucracies and is highlighted in this earlier posting.
My single most consistent experience while serving on the East Greenwich School Committee was asking many questions and getting few answers from the bureaucrats. There was simply no clear way to penetrate the bureaucratic fog and that creates the opportunity for mischief. Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institue, addresses that concern in a policy paper entitled Corruption in the Public Schools: The Market Is the Answer:
One of the most frequently voiced objections to school choice is that the free market lacks the”accountability” that governs public education. Public schools are constantly monitored by district administrators, state officials, federal officials, school board members, and throngs of other people tasked with making sure that the schools follow all the rules and regulations governing them. That level of bureaucratic oversight does not exist in the free market, and critics fear choice-based education will be plagued by corruption, poor-quality schools, and failure…
So which system is more likely to produce schools that are scandal free, efficient, and effective at educating American children? The answer is school choice, precisely because it lacks the bureaucratic mechanisms of public accountability omnipresent in public schools.
In many districts bureaucracy is now so thick that the purveyors of corruption use it to hide the fraud they’ve perpetrated and to deflect blame if their misdeeds are discovered. However, for the principals, superintendents, and others purportedly in charge of schools, bureaucracy has made it nearly impossible to make failed systems work. Public accountability has not only failed to defend against corruption, it has also rendered many districts, especially those most in need of reform, impervious to change…
This recent reaction by Hillary Clinton is another example of how politicians twist the facts about school choice:
“First family that comes and says ‘I want to send my daughter to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School’ and you say ‘Great, wonderful school, here’s your voucher,'” Clinton said. “Next parent that comes and says, ‘I want to send my child to the school of the Church of the White Supremacist …’ The parent says, ‘The way that I read Genesis, Cain was marked, therefore I believe in white supremacy. … You gave it to a Catholic parent, you gave it to a Jewish parent, under the Constitution, you can’t discriminate against me.'”
As an adoring, if somewhat puzzled, audience of Bronx activists looked on, Clinton added, “So what if the next parent comes and says, ‘I want to send my child to the School of the Jihad? … I won’t stand for it.”
This press release from Clint Bolick at the Alliance for School Choice had the best response to Clinton’s hypocritical words:
Never was there greater testimony to the importance of school choice than Mrs. Clinton herself. When the President and Mrs. Clinton moved into the White House, they were offered something that no other resident of the nation’s capitol had: the choice of any public school for their daughter. They decided that sending their daughter to a defective school system was too great a sacrifice, and chose a private school instead. That led Wisconsin Rep. Polly Williams, the sponsor of Milwaukee’s school choice program, to quip that “Bill and Hillary Clinton should not be the only people who live in public housing who get to send their kids to private schools.”
Daniel Lips of the Heritage Foundation also responds to Clinton:
…Families who crave school vouchers for their children aren’t hoping to enroll their children in white -supremacist schools madrassas. All they want is the opportunity to send their children to a school where they will learn.
Under a voucher program, policymakers could require that participating children attend private schools that are accredited by the state, in order to protect against the possibility of extremist schools. Sen. Clinton ignores how similar protections have been built into other government programs – such as Pell Grants, the Hope tax credit, and subsidized loan programs – that help students attend a chosen school…
…If the children attending Kennedy High used vouchers to transfer into private schools, would they be leaving for any reason other than having a decent opportunity to succeed in life – an opportunity their current public school can’t give them?
A January 23 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled The Education Borg (available for a fee) described the resistance to change by the teachers’ unions:
Teachers unions keep telling us they care deeply, profoundly, about poor children. But what they do, as opposed to what they say, is behave like the Borg, those destructive aliens in the Star Trek TV series who keep coming and coming until everyone is “assimilated.”
We saw it in Florida this month when the state supreme court struck down a six-year-old voucher program after a union-led lawsuit. And now we’re witnessing it in Milwaukee, where the nation’s largest school choice program is under assault because Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle refuses to lift the cap on the number of students who can participate.
Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, enacted with bipartisan support in 1990, provides private school vouchers to students from families at or below 175% of the poverty line. Its constitutionality has been supported by rulings from both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts.
Yet Mr. Doyle, a union-financed Democrat, has vetoed three attempts to loosen the state law that limits enrollment in the program to 15% of Milwaukee’s public school enrollment. This cap, put in place in 1995 as part of a compromise with anti-choice lawmakers backed by the unions, wasn’t an issue when only a handful of schools were participating. But the program has grown steadily to include 127 schools and more than 14,000 students today. Wisconsin officials expect the voucher program to exceed the 15% threshold next year, which means Mr. Doyle’s schoolhouse-door act is about to have real consequences.
“Had the cap been in effect this year,” says Susan Mitchell of School Choice Wisconsin, “as many as 4,000 students already in the program would have lost seats. No new students could come in, and there would be dozens of schools that have been built because of school choice in Milwaukee that would close. They’re in poor neighborhoods and would never have enough support from tuition-paying parents or donors to keep going.”…
The unions scored a separate “victory” in Florida two weeks ago when the state supreme court there struck down the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Passed in 1999, the program currently enrolls 700 children from chronically failing state schools, letting them transfer to another public school or use state money to attend a private school. Barring some legislative damage control, the 5-2 ruling means these kids face the horrible prospect of returning to the state’s education hellholes next year…
What the Milwaukee and Florida examples show is that unions and their allies are unwilling to let even successful voucher experiments continue to exist. If they lose one court case, they will sue again — and then again, as long as it takes. And they’ll shop their campaign cash around for years until they find a politician like Jim Doyle willing to sell out Wisconsin’s poorest kids in return for their endorsement. Is there a more destructive force in American public life?
Locally, they ran a disinformation campaign during the East Greenwich negotiations last year and were willing to use work-to-rule methods to hurt our kids – all so they could minimize their health insurance co-payment, get retroactive pay, and receive 9-13% annual salary increases for 9 of the 10 job steps. It’s all about taking our money for themselves and it has nothing to do with our kids.
Valerie Forti of the Education Partnership in Providence offers these thoughts on the challenges of the status quo:
…Is the current spending even appropriate? How can policymakers and taxpayers be certain that local school districts actually require more money (and so, increased taxes), if those districts have not taken the crucial steps of looking at how their money is being spent and asking the tough question of whether that spending is really helping students?…We have spent the last 16 months analyzing teacher contracts in Rhode Island, and have found that, to a stunning degree, they focus on adult entitlements. The contracts that we have studied are not about students, accountability, and improvement of our public education system…
…we are startled by the degree to which school boards and administrators are paralyzed by their district contract and obligations that have been previously negotiated…
The general public is rarely aware of the role that collective bargaining plays in education. Most taxpayers are typically unaware of what is negotiated by union representatives and school boards, and they probably assume that education dollars are being spent to improve learning…Union leaders, on the other hand, do receive instruction on how to negotiate contracts…
…it is reasonable to ask this question: Is it even possible to dramatically improve our education system with the current delivery system of union contracts that severely constrain school districts?…
We believe that districts with strong unions must take decisive action to determine the appropriateness of their contractual obligations. And they must undertake a new commitment to become truly student-centered.
The Education Partnership recently completed a most insightful study on the various management rights and financial issues in union contracts. All of the Rhode Island teacher union contracts can also be found on their website.
In addition, this posting offers my personal indictment of teachers’ unions and the status quo at national, state, and local levels as well as a reflection on some lessons learned during my time on the East Greenwich School Committee. If you have a lot of free time, the numerous postings at the bottom of this posting cover an even broader range of national, state and local issues – a number of which are linked to in this posting.
Public education in this country will only improve when we accept that the current mediocre status of public education cannot be fixed as long as it is controlled by unaccountable government bureaucrats and the teachers’ unions.
VI. THE MAGNITUDE OF TEACHERS’ UNION MONIES AT WORK TO MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO
A January 3 Wall Street Journal editorial (available for a fee) discusses the new Department of Labor disclosure requirements:
If we told you that an organization gave away more than $65 million last year to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, AIDS Walk Washington and dozens of other such advocacy groups, you’d probably assume we were describing a liberal philanthropy. In fact, those expenditures have all turned up on the financial disclosure report of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.
Under new federal rules pushed through by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, large unions must now disclose in much more detail how they spend members’ dues money. Big Labor fought hard (if unsuccessfully) against the new accountability standards…They expose the union as a honey pot for left-wing political causes that have nothing to do with teachers, much less students.
We already knew that the NEA’s top brass lives large. Reg Weaver, the union’s president, makes $439,000 a year. The NEA has a $58 million payroll for just over 600 employees, more than half of whom draw six-figure salaries. Last year the average teacher made only $48,000, so it seems you’re better off working as a union rep than in the classroom…
…”What wasn’t clear before is how much of a part the teachers unions play in the wider liberal movement and the Democratic Party,” says Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based watchdog group. “They’re like some philanthropic organization that passes out grant money to interest groups.”…
When George Soros does this sort of thing, at least he’s spending his own money. The NEA is spending the mandatory dues paid by members who are told their money will be used to gain better wages, benefits and working conditions. According to the latest filing, member dues accounted for $295 million of the NEA’s $341 million in total receipts last year. But the union spent $25 million of that on “political activities and lobbying” and another $65.5 million on “contributions, gifts and grants” that seemed designed to further those hyper-liberal political goals.
The good news is that for the first time members can find out how their union chieftains did their political thinking for them…
It’s well understood that the NEA is an arm of the Democratic National Committee. (Or is it the other way around?) But we wonder if the union’s rank-and-file stand in unity behind this laundry list of left-to-liberal recipients of money that comes out of their pockets.
You can go to here for more/ongoing LM-2 report information on labor union financial matters.
A follow-up editorial (also available for a fee) added several other interesting points:
…the NEA also works though these same state affiliates to further its political goals by bankrolling ballot and legislative initiatives. To that end, the Kentucky Education Association received $250,000 from the NEA last year; the Michigan Education Association received $660,000; and the California Teachers Association received $2.5 million. We doubt this cash goes into buying more laptops for poor students.
And then there’s the money that the NEA sends directly to sympathetic interest groups working at the state level, such as the $500,000 that went to Protect Our Public Schools, an anti-charter outfit in Washington State (never mind that charters are “public schools,” albeit ones allowed to operate outside the teachers’ union education monopoly)…
A January 28 ProJo editorial added several other insights:
…The national NEA spent $47 million on “representational activities,” such as bargaining contracts; $25 million on political activities and lobbying; $64 million on overhead; and $65 million on contributions, gifts, and grants, many to political causes associated with the Democratic Party.
At the local level, National Education Association Rhode Island reported giving total compensation of more than $100,000 to nine people: Executive Director Robert Walsh ($142,015); Deputy Executive Director Vin Santaniello ($131,952); President Larry Purtill ($116,332); General Counsel John Decubellis ($109,862); Business Manager Walter Young ($106,306); and field representatives Jane Argenteri ($108,790), Jerry Egan ($110,111), Robert Roy ($103,985), and Jeannette Woolley ($107,252). Another four received total compensation of $86,000 or more.
The Rhode Island NEA spent $63,432 on “public relations” at Warwick’s Cornerstone Communications, the company of Guy Dufault, who last made news by promising to defeat Governor Carcieri by revealing the names of Mr. Carcieri’s apparently nonexistent girlfriends. Another $58,800 went to WorkingRI, a political group opposed to the governor also linked to Mr. Dufault.
(The Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also filed a report, showing five employees each receiving more than $100,000: President Marcia Reback [$128,542], Director of Professional Issues Colleen Callahan Delan [$116,243], and field representatives Robert Casey [$125,656], Michael Mullane [$116,243], and James Parisi [$116,243]. The AFT gave $5,000 to Cornerstone Communications, and $7,500 to the lobbying group Citizens for a Representative Government, also associated with Mr. Dufault, which helped block a constitutional convention in Rhode Island.)
If serving the unions’ economic interests is the goal, it is hard to argue that these local leaders have been overpaid.
How well that has served the state’s students is, of course, up for debate…
The 2006 NEA Rhode Island agenda calls for: increased spending on schools; reduced class sizes (translating into more teachers); shifting more of the burden of school spending onto state government from the localities; stopping privatization or outsourcing of jobs; revising pension reforms passed last year by the General Assembly; and removing any barriers on public employees’ and their spouses’ running for public office.
That is an agenda that would keep money and power flowing to the teachers’ unions, something they are well within their rights to seek. But it’s fair to ask how much good it would do our struggling students.
An earlier posting also discussed the nearly unlimited amount of funding unions invest in politics to maintain the failed status quo.
VII. IRREVERSIBLE CHANGE HAS BEGUN
In spite of the opposition, school choice is gathering momentum. Here is a list of key school choice programs. Another website offers these observations:
Six states–Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, Utah and Wisconsin–and the District of Columbia now have state or district-funded scholarship programs for elementary and secondary students.
Six states offer tax credits or deductions for education expenses or contributions to scholarship programs.
Forty states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws.
Fifteen states guarantee public school choice within or between districts. (Other states have choice programs that are optional for districts, target only specific populations, and/or require that parents pay tuition.)
In all 50 states, homeschooling is legal. As many as 2 million students are homeschooled nationwide.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of parental choice in education. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (June 27, 2002), the court ruled that Cleveland’s voucher program, which includes religious schools, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In previous cases, the court turned away a challenge to Arizona’s scholarship tax credit program and ruled in favor of Minnesota’s education tax deduction.
This study expounds on another important argument: “Much of the debate over school choice has focused on the educational benefits it could bring. It can bring significant fiscal benefits as well.”
Stay tuned to the latest school choice news on some of these important websites:
Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Cato Institute on Education
Alliance for School Choice
National Center for Policy Analysis
Education Policy Institute
Heritage Foundation on Education
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Center for Education Reform
Heartland Institute on Education
Mackinac Center for Public Policy
If you want to dive more deeply into the debate, here are some education books in my personal library (besides Greene’s book mentioned earlier) that I would recommend reading:
Koret Task Force: A Primer on America�s Schools
Politics, Markets and America�s Schools
Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public
Koret Task Force on Choice with Equity
Market Education: The Unknown History
Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform
The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980
New Schools for a New Century: The Redesign of Urban Education
We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future
Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education
Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle over School Choice
Public Education: An Autopsy
The Teachers� Unions: How the NEA and AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy
Understanding the Teacher Union Contract: A Citizen�s Handbook
Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics
VIII. ELABORATING ON THE RATIONALE FOR SCHOOL CHOICE
In an excellent and accessible way, Milton Friedman said this about school choice in the November 2005 issue of The School Advocate (not available on line):
…Government ownership and operation of schools alter fundamentally the way the industry is organized. In most industries, consumers are free to buy the product from anyone who offers it for sale, at a price mutually agree on. In the process, consumers determine how much is produced and by whom and producers have an incentive to satisfy their customers. These competitive private industries are organized from the bottom up…
In elementary and secondary education, government decides what is to be produced and who is to consume its products, generally assigning students to schools by their residence. The only recourse for dissatisfied parents is through political channels, changing their residence or forswearing the government subsidy and paying for their children’s schooling twice, once in taxes and once in tuition…In short, this industry is organized from the top down…
…Top down organization work no better in the United States than it did in the Soviet Union or East Germany.
The prescription is clear. Change the organization of elementary and secondary schooling from top-down to bottom-up. Convert to a system in which parents choose the schools their children attend – or, more broadly, the educational services their children receive…Parents would pay for educational services with whatever subsidy they receive from the government plus whatever sum they want to add out of their own resources. Producers would be free to enter or leave the industry and would compete to attract students. As in other industries, such a competitive free market would lead to improvements in quality and reductions in cost.
The problem is how to get from here to there. That is where vouchers come in. They offer a means for a gradual transition from top-down to bottom-up. However, not just any voucher program will do. In particular, the kind of voucher programs that have been enacted so far will not…They are what I have called charity vouchers, not educational vouchers.
They have served their limited purpose well. The families that received them have benefited; the educational performance of the voucher schools has been better than of the government schools from which the voucher students came. And the educational performance of those government schools has improved…
An educational voucher of reasonable size, though less than the current government spending per student, that was available to all students regardless of income or race or religion and that did not prohibit add-ons or impose detailed regulations on start-up service providers, would end up helping the poor more than a charity voucher – not instantly, but after a brief period as competition did its work. Just as the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly led to a revolution in communications, a breakup of the school monopoly would lead to a revolution in schooling.
There has been some progress toward charity vouchers but almost none toward educational vouchers. The reason, I believe, is that centralization, bureaucratization and unionization have enabled teachers’ union leaders and educational administrators to gain effective control of government elementary and secondary schools. The union leaders and educational administrators rightly regard extended parental choice through vouchers and tax-funded scholarships as the major threat to their monopolistic control…
…the “voiceless,” among whom are surely the residents of low-income areas in big cities, are clearly the main victims of the present schooling system and would be major beneficiaries of a more competitive educational system. Every poll shows them to be strongly in favor of vouchers…
Similarly, teachers in government schools, especially the more competent ones, would be among the major beneficiaries of a transition to an educational system dominated by competition and choice. Under the present system, not much more than half of the money spent on government schools goes to teachers in the classroom. The rest goes to administrators, advisors, consultants and the whole paraphernalia of non-teaching bureaucrats. In private schools, the bulk of the spending ends up in the classroom…
Public support for educational vouchers is growing. More and more states are considering proposals for vouchers or tax-funded scholarships. Pressure is building behind each of the 50 dams erected by the special interests. Most major public policy revolutions come only after a lengthy build-up of support. But when the break comes, what had been politically impossible quickly becomes politically inevitable. So it will be with the goal of a competitive free market education system compatible with our basic values.
IX. WHY SCHOOL CHOICE IS A MORAL IMPERATIVE
School choice – where parents, not the government, control educational decisions for their children – is the only reform that has the potential to make American public education great again.
A January 16 Wall Street Journal editorial (available for a fee) entitled He’s Throwing Away My Dream: Today it’s liberal Democrats who stand in the schoolhouse door notes:
…Teacher unions have their own answer to the collapse of public education in the inner cities: ship truckloads of money to poorer districts in the name of “social justice.” But many Milwaukee parents aren’t buying that. They have painfully learned that more money spent on a failed system does not produce better education. They want to make their own decisions about their children’s future.
In the early battles over establishing the Milwaukee program, opponents backed down only when Milwaukee parents began comparing Bert Grover, then the state school superintendent, to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. The front lines of today’s civil rights struggle are not in the South but in Milwaukee.
This is a moral crusade. Access to a quality education is the great equalizer in enabling all children to have a fair shot at living the American Dream. We cannot and will not continue to deny our children what is their birthright as citizens of this great land.