Demanding education freedom now

Shayam Menon Contributor
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Education is the great equalizer. Today, however, there are millions of American children stuck in thousands of deteriorating government schools. Other children are fortunate to live in ZIP codes that have adequate government schools but whose standards often pale in comparison to private schools and schools in many industrialized nations. Despite decades of substantially increased spending and federal government directed education policy beginning with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, we are failing to satisfactorily educate our children.

Spending on government educa­tion is at an all-time high. For instance, the per-pupil expen­ditures in 1970-71 ($4,060) were less than half of the per-pupil expenditures in 2005-06 ($9,266) after adjusting for inflation. Nonetheless, Heritage Foundation studies have shown that reading scores are relatively stagnant and graduation rates have flat-lined. Polls suggest that parents are beginning to understand that their tax dollars are not being spent effectively.

We must for moral, productivity and national security reasons follow the lead of many European countries and end the government school monopoly over the estimated $700 billion annual educational marketplace by allowing each student the choice to attend the school that best meets his or her needs. Competition is the only way to improve K-12 government schools and produce cost effective educational delivery systems. Parents should be allowed to choose for themselves how to spend their taxes between the government schools assigned to their ZIP code and other schools including religious private schools, non-religious private schools, for-profit private schools, public charter schools and virtual and online learning schools. Market driven solutions are desperately needed to support families as they determine the best learning environment for their children.

We are not limited to one airline, one overnight mail carrier or one Internet provider, yet we have no choice in arguably the most important service sector—educational services for our children. Of course, if you are not satisfied with the government school in your ZIP code, you can send your child to a private school assuming you can afford the private school and can afford to continue to pay (through your local real estate, state and federal taxes) for another child to attend your government school. However, this is patently unfair and discriminates against low-income families.

Parents should control where educational services are obtained for their children, and the federal government should encourage States to make funds portable to follow each child. The federal government currently provides approximately 10 percent of K-12 education funding but yields a disproportionate amount of control. Since approximately 90 percent of the funding comes primarily from local real estate and state level taxes, state and local governments should control the education conversation. In addition, this is a matter left to the states by the Constitution. The federal government needs to gradually return all control and money to the states, and state based school choice efforts should initially be directed to the hardest hit communities (such as inner cities) utilizing the tax code and vouchers to provide innovative solutions.

Far too many children in Title I (low-income) schools are suffering, year after year, in academically dysfunctional schools. This crisis hurts African-American and Hispanic children the most. For instance, less than half of African-American and Hispanic fourth graders have basic reading skills—more than 700,000 children in America who can barely read.

When polled and provided with accurate information about school choice, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans favor school choice options by wide margins. National surveys consistently show that substantial majorities (upwards of 75 percent in some polls) of these two groups favor education tax credits or vouchers.

However, progressive elitists have controlled the educational establishment for decades and seem to believe that they rather than parents are in a better position to determine the type of education for children. They seem to be resigned to the notion that low-income children can attain only so much. President George W. Bush called this the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Many people disagree. It is the blatant bigotry of low expectations against low-income, low-achieving, minority children and their parents.

Competition and choice in education are winners across the board. Children and parents benefit from higher quality education in environments that best suit the needs of children and their families. School choice is not against government schools. One reason for the rising bipartisan sup­port for school choice is the growing empirical evidence that school choice programs work also for students who remain in government schools. Government schools improve their overall performance in response to competition. Teachers also benefit by having the option to pick where to work instead of being forced to live by rules that mostly reward time in service as opposed to achievement in service and too often ignore bad behavior of their colleagues.

In addition, studies show beneficial effects on graduation rates, parental satisfaction, racial integration and substantial cost savings. All taxpayers (including those who do not have children in school) benefit from the lower cost of education resulting from the competition and efficiencies of an open marketplace. According to researchers, there is no question that school choice programs have positive impacts on students, families, school systems and communities.

For instance, a new study by University of Minnesota Professor John Robert Warren released February 2, 2010, showed that the graduation rate for students in Milwaukee’s 20-year-old school-choice program was 18 percent higher than for students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). According to School Choice Wisconsin, these results are also noteworthy because per pupil taxpayer support for choice students ($6,442) is less than half the $14,011 spent in MPS, and eligibility for the choice program is limited to students from low-income families “while students in MPS schools come from a much broader range of social and economic backgrounds.”

In the nation’s capital with its unique federal role, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is the most impressive federal school choice education program ever. This voucher program has improved academic achievement for low-income students at less than half of the cost of D.C. government schools and with extremely high parental satisfaction. However, despite the fact that 74 percent of D.C. residents (and 79 percent of D.C. parents with school aged children) want this voucher program to continue and be expanded as does a majority of the D.C. City Council, President Obama and Congress are phasing out the program and turning their backs on approximately 1,300 remaining students who have thrived in brilliant learning environments—a real tragedy.

It is clear that most Democratic leaders support the education establishment and favor the government-controlled monopoly. Unfortunately, Republican leaders have generally been unwilling to aggressively advance free market conservative principles in the area of education, and that is a shame. It is no wonder that Republicans are constantly scratching their heads befuddled why they often can’t even capture a small fraction of the African-American and Hispanic vote.

Newly elected Republican Govs. Christie in New Jersey and McDonnell in Virginia have selected education secretaries who have solid school choice credentials. But will they take these opportunities to aggressively advance meaningful education initiatives such as tax credit programs or targeted voucher pilot programs in places like Newark, N.J., and Richmond, Va.? Or will they merely promote token school choice initiatives such as beefing up charter school laws?

Clearly, the well organized, wealthy and powerful education establishment fears the prospect of giving families choices beyond traditional government schools and giving up control of the $700 billion K-12 education marketplace. Where school choice efforts have been successfully implemented, the driving force has been parents who understand that school choice works. Parents have demanded freedom and taken on the education establishment.

As parents are becoming increasingly involved at the grassroots level, the battle lines are being drawn. Parents seek to engage in the political process to enact real reform. Unfortunately, parents are generally not well organized to challenge Goliath. In order for the school choice movement to move to the next level and to improve education in our nation, faith-based and community organizations and local school choice advocacy groups need to come alongside parents to galvanize and empower families to fight for change that will actually make a difference.

Shayam K. Menon is an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., and is a former director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education where he primarily worked on school-choice matters.