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Education consistently ranks near or at the top of every public opinion survey that asks for the most important issues facing our state and our country. For this Alabamian, it is the No. I issue.
My wife and I are the parents of three girls, ages 2 to 4. Only a year away from enrolling one child in school, and three years away from having all three in school, we are faced with the question that hundreds of thousands of parents across Alabama ask themselves every day: Is my child getting a quality education?
A select handful of Alabama parents can answer that question with a confident "yes." They are the parents who, because of personal finances, have moved into the affluent public-school districts of our state that have achieved academic excellence; or they have paid to send their child to private schools. They are the parents who have a choice.
For all the other parents in Alabama, the answer to whether their children are getting a quality education is often "I hope so," or - in the saddest of circumstances - a resounding "no."
Reforming our public education system has been a hot topic in the state lately. After months of intense debate, we Alabamians decided against creating a lottery to fund a new college scholarship program. But that doesn't mean that parents aren't interested in improving education. In fact, many are more concerned about the education provided by public high schools and elementary schools.
The time has come for Alabama to consider extending choices in education to all Alabama parents, not just the most affluent.
In September 1998, Birmingham was named a "partner city" to receive a Children's Scholarship Fund "challenge grant" as given by a $100 million foundation underwritten by two wealthy entrepreneurs. There were 375 grants made available, and over 9,000 applications were received - nearly 25 times the number of scholarships. These numbers provide clear evidence of the pent-up demand for school choice in our state.
But first, one basic question: What does it mean to be a "public" school? In reality, the government does not have to run every aspect of a school for it to be public. Many schools, for example, hire private companies to clean buildings, maintain the grounds or cook meals for students. "Public education" essentially means that the public taxes itself to educate young people. Under school choice, the public's funds could be used at non-government schools in exchange for educating these children.
Consider the education choices parents could have: traditional public schools, including magnet programs; charter schools, which are independent schools within the public system that are not required to adhere to the same regulatory burdens and can adopt their own curricula and administrative policies in exchange for more rigorous performance standards; and private and parochial schools that are completely independent from public schools.
With school choice, all of these kinds of schools compete for the opportunity to educate children. Those parents who are satisfied with the public schools their children attend can choose to remain in the schools, but those who are not would have the option to try something different.
Thus, school choice works much like America's Medicare system. In Medicare, seniors see the doctor of their choice, and the government reimburses the doctor for treating the patient. Medicare is a public institution, just like education, but that doesn't mean that doctors must be employed by the government, or that hospitals must be run by the government. Results are the important part. America wants its seniors cared for and its children educated.
Our neighbor, Florida, recently enacted an education reform plan to guarantee results. Schools there are ranked on an A to F scale that measures their performance in student achievement, college readiness and other goals. If a school fails for two consecutive years, its students receive "Opportunity Scholarships" from the government to use at other schools. Alabama could benefit from a similar plan, or from school choice for parents in all schools.
Consider the benefits. Competition has improved many products, and would improve education. Just as competition has produced better cars, better and cheaper computers, and lower long-distance rates, competition can produce better schools for everyone.
Higher education is another great example: America has the best university system in the world, partly because students can choose their colleges. If all high-school graduates living in the First Congressional District were forced to attend the University of South Alabama, it would not have much incentive to create a quality learning environment for incoming students. More simply put, quality suffers when a substantial number of customers have no option to go elsewhere.
This isn't just a theory: School choice is working all over the country. After four years of a state-funded school-choice plan in Milwaukee, low-income students performed 11 percentage points better in math and six points better in reading. In response, the Milwaukee public school system got competitive in the education marketplace, and began a student recruiting campaign that guaranteed to teach all children to read by the third grade. If a child does not read at that level, the campaign promises, the school system will hire and pay a tutor to teach that child to read.
Similarly, students receiving publicly or privately funded vouchers in Cleveland, San Antonio and New York have posted comparable gains on achievement tests.
Another benefit: Schools can be more accountable to parents, not the state bureaucracy. Alabama, for example, has invested heavily in student-performance tests and other measures to make sure that schools are held accountable for results. But parents could do a better (and less expensive) job of quality control if they had the option of taking their children out of a failing school.
After all, parents are more concerned about their children's learning than teachers. In fact, one of the most consistent factors in determining student success is whether parents are interested and involved in their children's education.
Under Alabama's accountability system, if a school is failing, the only consequence is a state takeover. In other words, students get more of the same. Failing schools continue to get funding, and students still have to attend. Extra state assistance may help, but why not combine it with Opportunity Scholarships, as Florida has done?
School choice can accommodate a diversity of views about education. Different students have different needs. However, while teachers often adapt their styles to help each child in their classes, schools and school districts don't have that much flexibility.
This lack of flexibility often leads to divided communities. Parents and school boards argue over whether and how to teach evolution and sex education, and about whether teaching phonics or whole-language reading is the best approach. Communities debate school schedules, student testing, and "zero-tolerance" disciplinary policies.
These discussions frequently result in one side winning, with the parents on the losing side forced to accept the results. But if parents could choose from a variety of public, private and charter schools with different curricula, then we would avoid these disputes.
You can expect to hear the usual objections from those who are opposed to school choice. But when compared to its benefits, these objections are relatively weak.
Opponents will argue, for example, that school choice will take money from public schools. But in fact, first and foremost, the government and its public school system receive their money from the very taxpaying parents who are entitled to have a say in their child's education. Any notion that those parents participating in a school choice program are "taking" the government's money is a direct attack on the idea of government serving the people.
On another level, this argument is misleading at best. School funding is based on the number of students enrolled. While overall funding might decline because of a drop in enrollment, the dollars received per student could in fact increase. For example, in the Cleveland program, students receive vouchers of $2,500 to use at charter or private schools. But, for each student who leaves, the Cleveland school system gets the remainder of the per-child allotment of funds.
So, essentially, for each of these children who uses a voucher outside the school system, the Cleveland public schools gets thousands of dollars not to educate them. That extra money can be used to help other students.
Some critics also allege that school choice is merely an attempt to resegregate schools. The opposite is true. First of all, racial discrimination in admissions is illegal. As for some sort of unintended segregation, nationwide both Catholic and non-Catholic private schools are more racially diverse than public schools, and have been since the early 1980s.
In the context of school choice in public schools, 60 percent of charter schools mirror the racial makeup of their surrounding communities, and most of the rest have a higher percentage of minority students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Other critics claim school choice violates the separation between church and state. They allege that school choice leads to unconstitutional taxpayer support for religion when vouchers are re- deemed at private schools affiliated with churches.
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled on the subject yet, but most lower courts have found school choice and vouchers to be constitutional. The failure of these legal attacks comes as no surprise when you consider that under federal aid programs like the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants, college students can use federal dollars to attend private and religious colleges, including seminaries.
Fundamentally, this debate is about who we as parents trust to lead our schools to stronger standards and higher achievement. It is not the politicians and bureaucrats in Montgomery and Washington; they have only led our education system away from parental accountability and toward administrative burdens. Instead, most of us look to the parents, teachers and principals to lead the fight for meaningful education reform.
For the overwhelming number of parents who are demanding the right to choose the safest and best schools for their children, school choice stands as the answer. Parents want to take a greater role in their children's education. And, working with teachers and principals, they want to ensure their children have opportunities to get ahead.
These are values that we all should respect and encourage. In the end, we would all be better off with this sort of honest teamwork.