Commentary

Satisfaction without Choice Means Nothing

This article originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post on July 8, 2005.
As Florida’s Supreme Court deliberates the constitutionality of school choice, seven judges control the fate of thousands of children. Meanwhile, thousands of parents are at the Court’s mercy, powerless to save their children from failing schools.

In an April 25 editorial, The Palm Beach Post asserted: “Those pushing charter and voucher schools in Florida long have insisted that ‘parent satisfaction’ is what matters. They never have explained why parent satisfaction isn’t enough of a standard for traditional schools.” (“Monitor charter schools; the evidence is growing”). The explanation, however, is as simple as the difference between being at the mercy of seven judges and being free. Parents in traditional schools must beg others to provide satisfactory education. Those with choice can get it themselves.

No doubt one reason the Post’s editors think parental satisfaction is a sufficient standard for public schools is that they have seen polls like one recently released by the Educational Testing Service. It found that 72 percent of parents gave their children’s schools either an “A” or a “B,” a result consistent with years of polling. Parents seem satisfied.

But what about the 27 percent who gave their schools a “C” or below? For them, whether most parents are happy is irrelevant. It’s their own satisfaction that matters, and they’re getting very little. And, of course, many contented parents exercised choice by moving to good districts.

Even if every parent was pleased with his or her children’s school’s academic performance, choice still would be vital. The history of American public education is marred by incessant conflict over values as well as performance, and an absence of choice lies at the heart of it.

Today, Kansas is torn over incorporating “intelligent design” in its science curriculum, setting those who do not want science tainted by non-scientific theories against Kansans who believe evolution is not the only possible explanation for life on Earth.

And religion is just one polarizing issue. The Philadelphia school system is considering requiring all high school students to take African-American history, believing that its schools devote too little attention to the subject. The district may be right, but opponents said other cultures deserved equal class time. They also might be right. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough school hours for all cultures to get equal time.

Then there are the math and reading wars. Should young children use calculators in math class? Should schools employ “whole language” to teach reading? No methods have been proven definitively to be the best, and none is right for every student.

But where there is only one school system, only one policy can prevail; as long as all parents are forced to support the single system, conflict is inevitable. Let individual parents choose the schools that supply the curricula and values they want, however, and the incessant warring for control will end.

Perhaps the Post’s real concern, though, is accountability. How can taxpayers be certain their money is being put to good use if individual parents set the standards? The question assumes that traditional schools are accountable, but for decades, public schools, especially in inner-cities, have performed abysmally. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, in 2003, only 20 percent of 4th graders and 19 percent of 8th graders in urban districts were proficient in reading.

Look at Miami-Dade. The district has lost millions of dollars on questionable projects and unchecked waste. Some schools are so bad that last week, Superintendent Rudy Crew proposed closing two of the worst for at least a year and overhauling their buildings, staff and curricula. Sadly, Mr. Crew ruled out making the decrepit schools into charter schools. According to his spokesman, Crew opposes that solution.

Of course he does. If parents had choice, they wouldn’t be dependent on Mr. Crew, the Florida Supreme Court or anyone else to set their children free from failing schools. They could exercise real accountability — they themselves could remove their children from broken schools.

Neal McClusky is Cato Institute education fellow.