When thinking about the Baltimore riots, I was struck by the fact that millions of Americans are trapped in cities with failing economies, trapped by failing politicians and trapped in failing schools.
Every parent, regardless of race, ethnic background or economic circumstance, wants to afford their children with greater opportunity than they had. Heartbreakingly so, many parents cannot provide this opportunity to their children and cannot help their children escape the cycle of failure and inner poverty. What if we as a country could do something to change that, to offer caring parents a real option to rescue their children and give them a shot at the American dream?
Well, we already have that chance, and in some parts of America, we are already offering options. This is National Charter Schools Week. And innovative, rigorous charter schools can transform the lives of children who might otherwise find no way out of the cycle of urban decay.
The strongest case of transformational success is in Florida. Under the leadership of then Governor Jeb Bush, Florida wholeheartedly embraced educational choice. He carefully and cleverly built a coalition of support for robust agenda in education, including a program of privately-funded “opportunity scholarships” for private and parochial schools, targeted at the neediest students in the state. Despite the dogged, predictable resistance of powerful teachers’ unions, Bush’s plan prevailed. Now today, there are nearly 250,000 students in charter schools, nearly two-thirds of them non-white, more than half of them from low income households.
Bush’s reforms transformed education in Florida. And Florida-style school choice, if implemented nationally, could transform urban life in America and encourage racial reconciliation because Bush created a plan whose benefits mostly go to non-white, lower-income children who were otherwise trapped in failing public schools.
A brand-new, rigorous study of the impact of charter schools by the Florida Dept. of Education, “Student Achievement in Florida’s Public Schools,” looked at more than 3.2 million test scores on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test and algebra final exams. It revealed that in 58 out of 63 categories of learning, charter school students outperformed those in traditional public schools. When it comes to the so-called “achievement gap” between white and non-white students, charter schools narrowed that gap in 18 out of 18 subject areas. As the report sums up its findings, “The percentage of students making learning gains was higher in charter schools in 76 of the 96 comparisons.” In Forbes magazine, Adam Ozimek cited a previous (CREDO) study that showed, “Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year.”
Before choice was offered to them, low-income parents had no option but to pack their children off to whatever school was dictated by their zip code. Some of these schools had been performing poorly for decades, but we all know how hard it is to fix a heavily unionized government monopoly. So the children marched in to the schools that the system offered them, and often failed to learn. They emerged unprepared for the world of work, relegated to the “underclass” by the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Millions of Americans watched the video of Toya Graham, a single mother of six, spotting her son Michael Singleton among the Baltimore rioters, and diving into the roiling crowd to pluck him out and discipline him. We saw a mother’s love in action, and that’s something we all understand. School choice empowers parents like Ms. Graham to take action for the benefit of their child. School choice places the trust with parents to make decisions that are right for their children including pulling their children from failing traditional public schools, and figuratively slapping the system that has failed them.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to offer power to the people.