How is School Choice Like Grocery Shopping?

Imagine that when you woke up today, Congress had passed a new law to handle where and how you shop for groceries. Instead of shopping at the store you prefer, you now have to shop at one store chosen for you by a Grocery Shopping Committee based on where you live. No longer can you shop the sale ads to get the best bargains for the groceries you want. You can’t shop at the store across town that carries the brand of laundry detergent you like, even if it’s been proven to do a better job cleaning your clothes. You can’t go to the store where the butcher works with whom you’ve done business for years, who knows exactly the cut of chops you like. (tweetable)

Worse, you can’t shop at another store if your government-mandated store is bad. Worms in the apples? Cut around the bad spots and eat your apples. Meat a little brown? Better cook it quickly! Nothing but horribly-expensive name-brands that are too expensive for you? Tough. Make do with less. Surly clerks who overcharge you and never seem to stock the right things in the right places? You can complain to the Grocery Shopping Committee but it won’t do you any good. Those employees are protected by a union that gives them the kind of job security usually only enjoyed by the Pope or a Supreme Court Justice. Even if you caught a store employee engaging in harmful behavior toward the produce, or robbing the customers, you couldn’t get them fired. They’d end up transferred to another store or sent to some kind of recreation center where they could play X-Box and post on Facebook all day, while you still paid them.

Over time, your choices would dwindle — one brand of cereal, one cut of dessicated meat, milk that may or may not be expired, and wilted lettuce. For reasons you can never quite understand, some sections of the store always have the latest and greatest, though. Don’t try to complain to a manager, though. 

Oh, there are managers, tons of them! Each department has a manager and an assistant manager and an assistant assistant manager, sometimes two or three of those. The store has a manager and four or five assistant managers. The group of stores in your georgraphical area has a manager and a few more assistant managers. Sometimes there are more managers than there are actual workers. You might go into your store and see a dozen of your hapless fellow shoppers lined up behind one bedraggled cashier while not very far away five or six administrative types shuffle papers or simple watch, unable or unwilling to help. Maybe one of them will listen to you. Maybe they’ll even try to make your store better, like that other store across town in the really nice neighborhood that doesn’t seem quite as horrible as yours. 

Don’t get your hopes up, though. Even if the store manager wanted to really shake things up — get better staff and bring in better selection — she’d still have to get past the union and the local Grocery Shopping Committee. If by some stroke of fortune, she ran that gauntlet with her sanity and reputation intact, she might get smacked down by the the National Department of Grocery Administration, which might go so far as to take your local store to court to keep things just the way they are. 

You might have other options. You could, for example, grow your own food and raise a couple animals for milk and meat. Of course you’d need to pick up a whole new set of skills and arrange the several hours during each day to tend to your new farm. That job you have? You’d be hard pressed to put in full-time hours and handle the new home-farming duties for your family. Perhaps your spouse could do the farming while you work, or vice-versa, but what if you don’t have a spouse? What if you’re a single parent? What if you simply can’t afford to be a one-salary family? 

Well, you could move, but where? How far? Could you find a new store in a neighborhood you could afford that wouldn’t have the very same built-in problems of the old store? You might just get lucky and find that magic store, but how long until the choices dwindled, the staff fell into uncaring malaise, and everyone in your neighborhood simply accepted their bags of soggy, droopy, moldy, stale groceries? 

You’d never live in a world like that. Neither would I. Yet millions of parents live in a situation that dreadful, not with their grocery store, but with their child’s school. Parents by and large send children to schools chosen for them based on where they live, not on merit or need. They have little to no power to change what their children are taught, who does the teaching, or how the teachers are evaluated. Children waste years of potential in a system that was outdated before most of their parents were born, and things aren’t getting any better. Our system of public education is dying, poisoned slowly over many decades by teachers’ unions, greedy politicians, hidebound administrators, and yes, at times, even apathetic parents.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), average reading and mathematics scores were only marginally better for a high-school graduate in 2012 than they were in 1971 despite massive increases in education spending. No nation spends more on education than the United States, yet we get so little for our money, and have so little control over how it’s spent. We wouldn’t accept that from our neighborhood grocery store and we shouldn’t accept it from our schools.

There is hope. All over the country, people have gathered around a simple idea called school choice, which says you ought to have the power to send your children to a school of your choice. Period. School choice is not a single “one size fits all” plan but a concept around which parents, educators, and politicians have gathered so they can figure out for themselves how best to educate their children. We all understand that what works in Olympia, WA won’t necessarily work in Jersey City, NJ and so local groups have developed their own way of doing things that suit their cities or states. 

Of course, school choice has brought out the ire of the teachers’ unions and the control-freak bureaucrats in Washington, DC. No matter. We know school choice works. We’ve seen it help families in Florida and Wisconsin and even Sweden. School choice worked in the very heart of the government leviathan, Washington, DC, before the President cruelly killed the program. In fact, educators can be a vital part of school choice success, as we’ve seen happen in Arizona where public schools improved and children thrive. No matter where it’s tried, no matter what form it takes, school choice works.

It gets better. School choice is popular, too. Poll after poll after poll after poll show most Americans want parents to have more power to choose their children’s school. Support for school choice is not only strong but broad as well. You name a group — mothers, African Americans, Hispanics, upper and lower income families — and you’ll find strong support for some form of increased school choice. (tweetable)

Just as you’d never settle for being locked into one grocery store, you shouldn’t settle for a system that locks kids into one public school without escape. You can help by contacting your member of Congress and asking them, often and insistently, to get behind school choice. Find an organization like FreedomWorks, the Franklin Center, or National School Choice Week and help their school choice efforts. Get up to speed on the issue and talk to every parent you know. See what the teachers at your local schools have to say about it (you’d be surprised!) and recruit allies everywhere you can.

It’s time we gave the power of choice back to parents and quality educations to our children. School choice is a good way to get both. Let’s make it happen. (tweetable)

(Photo Credit: Teresa “Dicentra” Black)