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On Monday, February 23, the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt wrote an exceptional article on the need for school choice titled, “Limits and Lessons of Vouchers.” His own argument suggests a better title would have been, “Limits of Government Education and Lessons on Market-Based Reform.”
The impetus for his writing was James Richardson, a 17-year-old who was shot in Ballou High School, a Washington, D.C. public school. He describes a desperate situation where, in the days following the incident,
“parents gathered at the school and elsewhere to talk about how trapped they felt -- trapped between sending their children to a dangerous school and not sending them to school at all.”
Hiatt acknowledges the desperate poverty of these options, and says he was made to think about those who were heartless enough to oppose vouchers and school choice for scared parents in Washington, D.C.:
“[S]enators who send their children to private school, D.C. Council members who themselves had been saved by attending parochial school, union leaders with the wherewithal to decide in which school district to live. All of them with choices, and very few choosing to send their children to Ballou. All of them claiming to speak on behalf of the people of the District, and never mind that those people -- when given an opportunity to, say, apply for privately funded vouchers -- show themselves to be desperate for choice.”
The author goes on to ask if the vouchers with which parents have been empowered will make a difference. Hiatt believes the results will be mixed, depending on how the program is implemented, and he couldn’t be more right. The Washington, D.C. program has already been saddled with compromises that will likely weaken their ability to engender reform. Hiatt points out that it is not the failure of the market to pressure failing schools to reform through vouchers, but the very strings that are attached to the vouchers that prevent the market from forcing schools to provide better services.
Hiatt points to Milwaukee. Although many students there are now receiving a much better education thanks to vouchers enabling them to choose better schools, the failing public schools themselves have not improved as well as some expected. Hiatt rightly argues that the reason is clear. “The system was designed to insulate the public schools from the consequence of failure. As a political price to gain approval for the voucher program, the state had to guarantee that funding for public schools would not fall.”
Hiatt says, “The same is true in the District, where the $13 million for vouchers was accompanied by a larger sum for public and public-charter schools…[and] the District will have vouchers for a smaller percentage of its 65,000 enrollees…And even if the numbers were larger, lack of accountability would remain a handicap.”
He points out why in a telling hypothetical situation:
“A mediocre principal who begins to lose students pays no penalty; he or she may even welcome the departure of "complaining" parents. Conversely, a star principal whose enrollment begins to grow is told by central headquarters which teachers to hire; the successful school may even get stuck with the teachers who have been made superfluous by departures from the mediocre school.”
Hiatt, the editor of the Washington Posts editorial page, then takes a page right out of the free-market handbook and outlines a system that would overcome this problem:
“You could design a system in which this wasn't so, a system with real accountability. You could give the parents of every public school pupil a $10,000 check and tell principals that if they wanted to keep their jobs they'd have to win the business of enough of those parents. Then you'd give the principals the freedom to hire and fire the teachers they wanted, and you'd put headquarters to the same test. If principals wanted to use downtown's human resources department, or curricular services, they'd pay for those; if downtown wasn't useful, it too would face the consequences. Principals would have to treat parents with respect; bureaucrats would have to be responsive to principals.”
Milton Friedman couldn’t have said it better himself. Hiatt continues Friedman-esquely:
“Yes, you'd have complex questions relating to nondiscrimination, special education and the degree of regulatory intrusion into private school affairs. Yes, it would be risky, and some parents would make poor choices. But compared to what? Today, most have no choice—they are forced to send their children into a system in which three-quarters of their children will be ‘below basic level’ in reading and math by the fourth grade, and half will drop out before graduating. Why is that an acceptable risk?”
Hiatt concludes by saying “Radical school choice isn’t coming, though, at least not soon.” And this is where Citizens for a Sound Economy comes in. We are the voters, we are the grassroots power, we are the people who can offer a lifeline to children in failing schools. We can help bring the power of market forces to bear on unaccountable school systems, and make them offer our children and grandchildren what they deserve.
Call CSE toll-free at 1-888-564-6873 and we’ll put you through to your Congressman so you can be heard, so you can let him know you want a better education. Call your governor and state representative. Let them know you won’t stand for the government education monopoly anymore.