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This week, as we celebrate President’s Day, all across the country school kids are learning the history of great American leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, while we celebrate our common history, not all American kids have access to the same quality education.
We are all aware that too many American children are trapped in poor, even dangerous, conditions in failing school systems. Some argue this situation calls for more spending on education. Yet, over the past 25 years, America has poured more and more money into bloated public school bureaucracies. If money is the answer, why does Washington, D.C., which enjoys some of the highest per-student spending in the world, have such a terrible public schools?
And the problem isn’t isolated to a few urban inner cities. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called “America’s Report Card,” takes a broad measure of the educational achievement of our children. According to NAEP year 2000 data, over one-third (37 percent) of American fourth-graders scored "Below Basic" on the reading portion of the test, meaning they were essentially illiterate after completing more than four years of public education. What are the job prospects in the Information Age for kids who can’t read?
The failure of many of our public schools is tragic individually, but it also threatens the broader American project. How can the next generation understand our tradition of liberty if they can’t read the Declaration of Independence? Or if they don’t know of the sacrifices of the American patriots at Lexington or Normandy? Indeed, the very ideas and values— the values of free markets and free men-- that are the bedrock of our republic must be passed on from generation to generation. I’m afraid that the evidence shows that many of our schools are failing in this core mission.
At CSE, we believe that poor kids trapped in failing schools should have access to a quality education. That means giving parents, not school system bureaucrats, the freedom to choose their children’s schools. It’s strange to me that Americans cherish our freedoms— to choose where we live, our jobs, where we shop—yet we deny that choice for one of the most personal and critical decisions a parent can make: who will educate their child.
Why haven't more school districts adopted competition and choice? Because the defenders of the public school monopoly are organized and active. They attend every single school board meeting, they visit their state legislators --- they actively work to defend their monopoly. Those of us who want more freedom, competition and quality need to do more. We must attend and speak out at school boards. I urge you to start by writing your state legislators. If you need help, just visit our web site at www.cse.org or give CSE a call at 1-888-JOIN-CSE.
There are lots of ways to achieve school choice— tax credits, vouchers, charter schools. As my friend Clint Bolick, whose Institute for Justice is the leading legal defender of school choice, says, “When someone asks, ‘Do you support tax credits or vouchers?’ the correct answer is, ‘Yes.’” CSE agrees—at this stage, it’s not so much how we end the public school monopoly, but rather that we try a number of options to introduce competition in education.
I also think it is important to say that school choice is not an attack on public schools. Rather, we seek to improve all schools, and the education they provide, by fostering competition. The commitment is still there; it’s the delivery system that needs to change.
Certainly, well-managed and responsive public schools will continue to serve their communities, and we believe that good public schools will become even better when forced to compete. But let’s throw a lifeline to the kids trapped in bad public schools, the kids whose parents can’t afford private school or to move to the suburbs, the kids whose best chance at successful lives is in their education. It’s that kind of opportunity that America is all about.