Commentary

School Choice for Fortunate Sons

By Darcy Ann Olsen and Dan Lips
This essay was distributed nationally by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.
In a recent moment of candor, Vice President Al Gore said: “If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing … I might be for vouchers.”

But of course, the vice president has never been in such a situation. A senator’s son of wealth and privilege, he has always enjoyed the benefits of educational choice. Instead of public schools, Gore attended the elite St. Alban’s Preparatory School. Naturally, Gore sent his own four children to private schools. too.

And no wonder. The schools in Washington, D.C., like countless others across the nation, are in ruins. Although the city spends $2,800 more per pupil than the average urban district, three out of four D.C. fourth-graders still can’t pass basic reading tests. That’s why Gore sent his children to better, private schools. But are other children’s futures less important?

For them, Gore promises not more choice, but more of the same: more money, more time, more assurances. His plan to “revolutionize education” isn’t revolutionary at all. Whether it’s smaller classes, higher standards, more classroom technology, higher teacher salaries, more preschool, or new after-school programs, each has been tried before and each has failed to reverse the decline in student achievement.

Why not truly revolutionize education? Why not give money spent on public schools back to parents so that they can purchase a better education for their child? Parents are crying out for alternatives to the public school system. The average grade parents give their local school is a “C,” according to the Department of Education. And while not all parents would change schools if they could, more than two out of three want that option through vouchers or tax credits.

The classic school choice plan would return to parents a part of their state taxes so they could pay tuition at any school of their choice. Under the current system, the state assigns children to schools, bureaucrats pick textbooks, arbitrary standards drive curriculum — and the establishment passes the buck when students fail. In public schools today, generations of children are forgotten and generations of mistakes forgiven. School choice means educators must deliver the goods now — not in five, 10 or 20 years — or watch their students leave for better schools, taking their money with them.

Some say the greatest beneficiaries of such programs would be children in the worst schools. A few thousands dollars — just a fraction of what many public schools spend — can lift children out of the dark abyss of their failing schools to attend private schools where classrooms are safe, discipline enforced, and children learn. The academic and social benefits of the “escape hatch” programs for poor children in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland are well known.

But a fully competitive education system, where choice is available to every child, promises more than an escape for a few children — it would leverage the dynamic spirit of the marketplace to spark innovation, research and educational improvement for all students.

Consider how entrepreneurs in education have already changed education for the better: Think of privately developed programs such as Hooked on Phonics and Kaplan’s test-preparation services. Or think of the innovative Edison Schools, where every child gets a personal computer and homework and discussions take place online. Now, imagine the response of entrepreneurs if the families of 55 million students could shop for an education. Schools could come from National Geographic, universities or education leaders. Perhaps new technologies will emerge that teach children everything they need to know on a device the size of a Palm Pilot. The possibilities for improvement are limitless.

But still we hear reservations from those who fear the unknown. Critics charge that choice would drain vital resources from the public school system. This contention misses the point — the goal of education policy should not be to sustain a system. The goal should be to teach children, and the current system does not deliver.

As parents get ready to send their kids back to school, they will make countless choices — what clothes to pick, which lunchbox to buy, how many pencils to pack. Regrettably, too many can’t afford to make the single most important choice for their child’s future. It’s time all children — not just fortunate sons like Al Gore — have the opportunity to attend better schools.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy and Dan Lips is an education research assistant.