Commentary

Put Parents in Control

By Darcy Ann Olsen
This article appeared in USA Today on May 10, 2001.

Pretend for a moment that your daughter is a high jumper in training. Every day she jumps, but tumbles headlong into the bar. The coach’s solution? Raise the bar.

Sound illogical? Sadly, that’s the situation facing school students across the United States today. Year after year, a majority of students fail proficiency tests in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Congress’ solution? Raise the bar with higher standards and more testing.

The theory is, for the first time, public schools will be fiscally accountable for student progress. Failing schools will either improve or lose federal funds. But it’s doubtful whether this theory will work in practice. Even if the education establishment musters the willpower to “fail” a school, federal funds constitute about 7% of education spending, a weak incentive to reform.

Certainly, some testing is useful. Teachers, parents and students need feedback, and tests provide that. Every state regularly tests students, and it’s from tests that we know student achievement has been sluggish for the past 30 years. But testing has limits. Like a canary in a coal mine, tests tell us when kids are in trouble, but offer no way out.

The solution? School choice. Genuine accountability occurs when parents can demand school excellence or can send their children elsewhere. Private schools outperform public schools for one reason: They must. Tax cuts, educational savings accounts, tuition tax credits and scholarship credits put parents in the driver’s seat.

Last week, Harvard University released a study of parents whose children received scholarships to attend new schools. Roughly seven out of 10 parents were very satisfied with the academic quality, values and safety of their chosen school, whereas only two out of 10 public-school parents said the same. Similarly, evaluations of choice programs in Dayton, Ohio; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte, N.C., found that children able to enroll in private schools scored higher on standardized tests than those who stayed in public schools.

Another test will tell us what we already know: Too many students are failing. Educational choice is the only way to ensure that no more children are left behind.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.