Reform is good, choice is better

Bob Bowdon Executive Director, Choice Media
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s State of the State address was a breath of fresh air for New Jersey residents, who have grown tired of hearing that the only acceptable reform in public education is to further balloon schools’ administrative staffs. Why else would the U.S. Census Bureau report that Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Trenton all spend over $20,000 per student per year on public education? That’s over $400,000 of spending for every classroom of 20 kids, folks. Take out the teacher’s salary and benefits, as well as a healthy overhead percentage for management to run the school, and you’ve still got to wonder where another couple hundred grand is going. Then multiply that pecuniary disappearing act by every single classroom in school after school, and it gives you a sense of the situation. When I tell people the town of Newark, New Jersey alone had a $940 million budget last year, many think it’s a joke. In fact, the joke’s on us.

Indeed, there’s little question that until now the central themes in New Jersey’s public education policy have been guilt and fear.

Of course, Christie is part of a larger, nationwide movement for education reform. Governors in states including Louisiana, New York, South Dakota and Wisconsin have made similar speeches in recent months. In his speech last week, Christie, like his brethren, called for reforming the Byzantine teacher removal process, euphemized as “tenure,” which has become a near-guarantee that poor instructors can expect precisely the same treatment, pay and longevity as excellent instructors. What small business owner would even consider such a policy?

In fact New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, recently told me that the total number of tenured teachers fired in the entire state over the last 10 years, out of a teacher pool of over 100,000 teachers, is 17. No missing digits there: 17. That’s what the union calls “due process.” Except for the kids stuck with the lousy teachers, that is.

Similarly, Governor Christie’s call for merit pay for New Jersey’s best teachers makes sense. Just a few days before Christie gave his speech, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg suggested giving $20,000 bonuses to the city’s best teachers. Anyone who has spent any time studying education knows there are thousands of excellent, hard-working teachers who deserve better compensation. And yes, districts should be able to compensate excellent AP math and science teachers more than average, because they’re harder to find and recruit. But amid these long-overdue changes, the best reform for New Jersey’s public education system will be school choice.

As our economy has become more targeted and niche-oriented, and if you’ll excuse the marketing jargon, more long-tailed, Americans have come to expect choices in virtually every aspect of life. How many kinds of coffee can you buy today versus just 10 years ago? Can you even keep track of the kinds of digital cameras available? But for some reason the education establishment has convinced many of us that in education, power and resources should be concentrated, not distributed. If multiple providers competed to deliver that one service, they tell us, it would divert money away from the poor, struggling neighborhood schools, leaving those piteous, benighted children sad and dejected.

At the risk of invoking common sense, ask yourself: Do FedEx and UPS drain money from the Postal Service? Would the Post Office be better if it could be freed of the nasty competition from the evil, corporate privatizers of FedEx and UPS? Do FedEx and UPS “drain money” that the Post Office needs to improve? If you honestly believe your package service would be better without competition, then perhaps you should oppose vouchers, charters and the whole lot of school choice options.

Did American cars get much worse when Japanese imports became common because re-engineering money was drained away to foreign competitors? If you believe that, you might also want to oppose school choice.

Or how about higher education? Should we pass a law giving the geographically closest state university a monopoly on any particular student, just like K-12? If you think that’d be a good reform for higher education so those tuition dollars won’t keep “draining” to the wrong school, then perhaps you should oppose vouchers and charters.

(I’m starting to feel the disembodied presence of Jeff Foxworthy.)

The fact is in industry after industry, competition improves quality, and losing market share and revenue is what refocuses failing institutions. It will with education too. That’s a conclusion politicians from Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal to Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo have reached.

This is the second annual National School Choice Week. I’m a big supporter; I’ve been speaking around the country and doing everything I can to promote the movement. You should too. Visit SchoolChoiceWeek.com to get involved. Because while the reforms to traditional public schools are desperately needed, the real change will come when power is diffused and the monopoly is replaced with choices for parents.

Bob Bowdon is the executive director of Choice Media.