Choice Shouldn’t Just be for School Supplies

Kids should be able to flee failing schools

President Bush struggled mightily with the “moral dilemma” of stem cell research-deliberating over the tough questions about when life begins and whether or not we should destroy potential life. But for some reason, Bush does not seem to be struggling with the same type of moral dilemma over living children receiving a sub-standard education. These children face a potentially debilitating future without a quality education and they deserve as much contemplation over the hard questions as potential children. And this shouldn’t take a whole lot of contemplating-kids need and deserve a quality education. If their school can’t provide that, they should be able to choose another school.

Imagine what would happen if President Bush took ten minutes on national television, as he did to announce his stem cell decision, to explain why he thinks it is important for poor parents with children in failing schools to be able to choose a better school for their kids. He could explain why he wants to give poor parents the same opportunities for their children that his children enjoy. The polls would show astronomical support for the plan because parents from every walk of life, regardless of political affiliation, would welcome the chance to give their kids a brighter future.

It is long past time to give parents a shot at improving their children’s education Why do parents have so many choices when it comes to school supplies but none when it comes to actual schools? If you walk into Target or Wal-Mart this month, the “back to school” products are everywhere. There is an infinite variety of lunchboxes, notebooks, and backpacks. Whether soft-sided, metal, or plastic; Planet of the Apes, Power Puff Girls, or Power Rangers, parents and children have more choices than ever when it comes to lunchboxes and notebooks.

But while parents can choose the color, character, and quality of their child’s backpack, they have little choice over the quality of the school that their child will attend. Most parents can afford to buy a backpack that fits their child’s needs, but many cannot afford a school that guarantees their child a high quality education. If a lunchbox breaks or a pen will not write, parents can get their money back or exchange it for a better product. Failing schools offer parents no exchanges and no refunds.

The federal government spends more than $120 billion per year, spread across 39 different federal agencies, on hundreds of education programs. At $9 billion a year, Title I is the largest program of federal aid for elementary and secondary education. The money is used mostly to provide intensive reading and math instruction to low-income students. The Department of Education’s own Title I evaluations demonstrate that after spending more than $150 billion, the program has not improved achievement for disadvantaged students.

The 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test paints a bleak picture for disadvantaged fourth-graders: 63 percent of black fourth-graders, 58 percent of Hispanics, and 60 percent of poor children scored below “basic” in reading-which for all practical purposes means they cannot read. The NAEP is considered the “nation’s school report card” and is widely viewed as an independent measurement of public school achievement.

Since Congress will not vote on President Bush’s education package this summer there is still time to reach an education-choice compromise. Even if the President cannot get school choice passed for every child who is attending a failing school-he could insist on a pilot project. In the same way that Bush is allowing the 60 lines of embryonic stem cell research to continue with federal support-he could choose 60 failing schools, or one city like Washington DC, that has a particularly high school-failure rate and allow parents to choose their children’s schools. At the very least, Congress should immediately enforce open-enrollment in the public schools and allow parents to exchange a failing public school for a better-performing public school. A parental choice demonstration project would also allow researchers to study the outcomes of a school-choice program for parents, children, and the public school system.

Next time you are debating with your child whether to buy the Scooby Doo lunchbox shaped like the Mystery Machine or the more-practical Tupperware lunchbox with multiple containers, imagine what it might be like to engage in the same sort of careful discrimination about your child’s school. Parents can only dream of the day when they have as many choices for their child’s schooling as they do for their school supplies.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.