Commentary

A Right to Safer Schools

This article appeared in The Washington Post on February 26, 1995.

Two students were shot, one fatally, in D. C. schools in January. After the murder of 16-year old Antar Hall at Cardozo High School, a Post headline reported, “D.C. Leaders at a Loss for Ways to Improve School Safety” [Metro, Jan. 7, 1995]. That concession means that not only are children compelled to attend school until age 18, they are forced to do so in danger of their lives.

In a recent Justice Department study, more than one in five male high school students reported owning a gun. Locally, the number of weapons confiscated in schools more than doubled in the past five years. It is horrifying that school authorities can’t keep guns out of school, but it is unconscionable that students are then forced to spend six hours a day in such dangerous environments.

If Mayor Barry, the school board and the police cannot keep children safe in school—and by their own testimony they cannot—then we should give children the right to choose safer schools by employing a new twist on the hottest idea in education reform—school choice.

Under a classic school-choice plan, the state or city would take some portion of the money it spends on schools and give it to the parents of every student as a voucher to be presented at any school, public or private, in the area. Money would flow from the school board to the families to the schools chosen by individual parents.

The general argument for school choice is that many American schools aren’t working and that competitive systems work better than government monopolies. Let parents—not just rich parents but all parents—choose the schools their children attend, and several things would happen:

  • Parents would take more interest in finding out which schools would be best for their children.
  • More children would be able to attend private schools, which consistently demonstrate better results than public schools.
  • New schools would be created in response to the increased demand for educational alternatives.
  • Ideally, public schools would improve in order to keep or attract families that had other options.

School-choice proposals have been bitterly resisted by the educational establishment. School superintendents and teachers’ unions seem convinced that giving parents a choice about where to send their children will mean a mass outflow of students from the public schools.

But in Milwaukee, an alliance between state legislator Polly Williams and Gov. Tommy Thompson managed to get a small choice program implemented three years ago. The educational establishment fought it in the courts, but several hundred poor Milwaukee children now attend private schools on government-financed scholarships. Their parents universally report that they’re satisfied with the new schools and would not want to return their children to the public schools.

The epidemic of violence in big-city schools provides an urgent reason to give poor and inner-city families an opportunity to escape dangerous schools. The D.C. school board should declare an educational emergency and offer a voucher good in any private or public school in the District to every student who is assigned to a school that has had a shooting or stabbing or more than one weapon confiscation in the past year, whether on school property or on school buses.

In the 1991-1992 school year, the District spent $9,549 per student, more than any state spent and the highest amount spent by any of the country’s 40 largest school districts. For that money, taxpayers got a high school graduation rate of 56 percent. Disadvantaged urban students in 38 states and the District participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests; in 1992 D.C. students made the lowest scores.

For $9,000, students from Cardozo and other dangerous schools could get a better education in a safer environment at Catholic or independent schools in the District. Tuition at Archbishop Carroll High School, for example, is only $3,850 a year, while Gonzaga charges $7,100. For elementary school, a voucher worth only half what the public schools spend would get students in to a number of safer and better schools.

No child should be forced to attend a dangerous school. Let’s give students at such schools an alternative.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute.