Thursday, March 3, 2011

Choice. Who Doesn't Love Choices?

The school choice movement could just as easily have been called “parental choice” or “consumer choice” or “let-the-children-learn” or “whatever works education.”  In essence, “school choice” is an umbrella term that covers all types of education and specifically allows for whatever will best serve the student.

Whether the child is best educated by public school (the best one they can find to attend), private school, home school, charter school, online school, etc. doesn’t matter to the school choice advocates.  What does matter is that the government gets out of the way of learning and allows American students to be educated… the way that works best for them.

I’ve been a school choice advocate as long as I’ve been a mother.  When my teenage son was a toddler, I started hearing about this strange new concept called “vouchers.”  I asked questions and started reading… Since then, I became involved in public policy not just to fight for the future of our children, but it certainly was a driving factor.  For those who have not ventured down this path to consider school choice, I thought I’d help explain it in simple terms.  But, for those who have considered it, but always assumed it to be a conservative idea, it seems an explanation as to why school choice is not just good for the goose, but is also good for the gander might be in order.
If you believe in the free market, you love school choice.  Conservatives get this instinctively.  The idea being that students, like consumers with their purchasing power, will flood to the best possible educational opportunity.  This causes great educational programs to flourish and causes lesser programs to either up their game or be left to find another use for their facilities.  That’s not sad.  That’s competition.
And, it isn’t harmful to public schools. In fact, it may be the only thing that can save them.
Here’s an illustration… Imagine a bakery that sells stale bread next door to a great new bakery that sells sumptuous fresh bread and great coffee.  The consumers quickly figure this out and pretty soon the stale bread will be replaced with fresh bread at the old bakery or the business will fold when all of the consumers flock to the bakery where they are assured a quality product.  The same is true of a public school that has ever-spiraling test scores and graduation rates.  A charter school moves into the neighborhood, and low-and-behold the public school actually experiences a bump in performance… That, my friends, is statistically proven.

So, conservatives get it.  But, what is remarkable is that when you travel the country, it isn’t always a partisan issue.  I’ve worked on school choice issues alongside Democrat legislators on task forces and policy groups.  In some states, this is the battle championed by a handful of Democrat legislators from inner-city districts working in conjunction with the business community and activists.  If that shocks you, then you would not be alone.  Here in Arizona, the Democrats almost universally buck any school choice policy that is presented today.  But, in other states, where inner city schools have lower income constituents’ children trapped in a cycle of educational failure, the Democrat representatives have joined forces with school choice advocates to fight for the right to a decent education for the children there.  It makes sense.  It is good policy that serves the families they represent.

Why should a child be forced to attend the failing neighborhood school just because they were born into that neighborhood which their parents have no financial means to move leave?  If a school is unsafe, why should a parent be forced to send their child into a war zone of drugs and gangs simply because a local government dictates that population must be restricted from crossing boundaries arbitrarily (or politically) determined by some obscure process in which they have no real power?

In Wisconsin, it was former State Representative Annette "Polly" Williams (a Democrat, African-American legislator from the central city) who had finally had enough of the failing schools in her area.  She stood up to the teachers' unions and establishment when she partnered with other Democrats, with a Republican Governor, with the business community, and with anyone who would listen to help fix the horrible situation of Milwaukee's central city schools.

The push is to simply put the funding dollars “on the back” of each student and let them be led to the best possible education with those dollars providing the means, in effect providing the essential consumer driven market effect that leads to a vastly improved school system, overall.

The idea of school choice, though broad in its application, has one guiding core principle.  Educate the American child.  That’s it.  It is arguably both the first and the last priority.  As a parent, I like that.  But, as a citizen of this country, I will fight for it because I believe our country’s future depends on getting this right. Even if you aren’t a parent, you should care and support this movement.

In a sense, the funding for education is a community effort because a well-educated workforce is good for employers, good for the kids, good for the common wealth when kids become productive members of society (I.e. taxpayers), and good for the family unit that can support each other and reduce the ever-increasing need for the welfare safety net provided by the community’s collective contributions.

But, perhaps most importantly, our little experiment we call “America” with our glorious constitution, free elections, and guaranteed republic only really works with a well-educated citizenry. If you care about those things, you need to care about education… And, by extension, you need to care about (and embrace) school choice.

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1 comment:

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