Make Education Look More Like America

Thank you, Dick. It was three years ago, here at the National Press Club, that I announced the formation of the Children’s Scholarship Fund. It has exceeded our fondest hopes as we have been able to help 40,000 low income children escape failing public schools and seek a quality education in the school of their choice. Personally, I have evolved from a person with simple charitable objectives into someone who has become painfully aware of the real facts of the education system in America.

So today I would like to share with you what I have learned and to tell you the unvarnished truth as I see it. I’m going to suggest that we do not have a real education debate in this country. What we have are competing ideas for tinkering with the same old system.

We’re like the famous mythical Emperor’s loyal subjects, debating whether his hat is red, or his boots are green – when in fact, he isn’t wearing anything at all.

Now the little boy who first had the temerity to say out loud that the Emperor had no clothes was, you will recall, given a pretty hard time. I guess I’m ready for that. In fact, in the early days of the Children’s Scholarship Fund an education bureaucrat actually called me “un-American” on a television news show. Un-American for helping 40,000 underprivileged kids? It got me thinking, in this context what really is American or un-American after all?

Well, to me, America is a democratic capitalist country. That’s pretty basic. Democratic means you have choices. It means people are free to choose all sorts of things – from who to vote for, to how to pray, to what to read, even free to drive multi-ton vehicles up to 65 miles per hour. Capitalism would imply that multiple suppliers compete, on a relatively level playing field, for the business of these free people who we call customers. But I want you to notice that in K-12 education, not a word that I have just spoken applies. We don’t allow people to choose where their children go to school, who teaches them, or what they learn – and we have one supplier with essentially no competition.

Obviously, that’s monopolistic. And given the fact that the payment for the product is mandatory – through taxes – and consumption of the product is compulsory – through attendance laws — that’s about as powerful a monopoly as has ever existed.

By the way, we passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act outlawing monopolies in 1890 because we came to a national consensus that monopolies produce a low quality product at a high price. That’s another fact.

So here’s where I begin to feel like the little boy looking at the naked Emperor. Because when it comes to the so-called education debate, all we’ve really been asking ourselves is what kind of monopoly we ought to have – one with longer hours, or smaller class sizes, or more buildings, or what. No one asks what seems to me to be the really obvious question, which is: why do we have a monopoly in K-12 education at all? Why in a country that is both democratic and capitalist, and that has a university system that is highly competitive and the envy of the world, does none of this apply to K-12 education?

Well surely, there must be a reason. We are told that America was founded on a system of government schools – and that therefore, they are a fundamental underpinning of our society. This is totally false. In fact, our founders consciously chose to base the country on an open system of education – one in which any legitimate supplier could enter the market and compete, and parents could choose from among them. Competition kept quality high and costs low. It wasn’t until 100 years after our founding, that things changed when Horace Mann convinced the Massachusetts legislature to start a government operated system in that state.

Both utopianism and bigotry played a role. Mann promised that if Massachusetts adopted his ideas, “nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete.” But, in reality, both he and his followers were concerned about the large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants entering the country, and felt that government schools were the best way to homogenize them within the broader Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society. Parents who once had authority over their children’s education had it taken gradually away – sometimes at the point of a bayonet. The whole thing might not even have survived had it not been adopted and very heavily sponsored by major industrialists like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford and Astor who believed a standardized, bureaucratic system could turn out compliant workers to staff their new factories, oil fields and coal mines.

Okay, so it turns out that the system we have is in fact the opposite of what the founders had in mind. But if it is a good system, maybe it only needs to be changed in some way or other. We’re told repeatedly that more money is needed to make the system work. But dozens of studies have tried to show a connection between money and learning without success. In fact we’ve increased spending fourteen-fold in inflation-adjusted terms since 1920, yet our schools, by just about every conceivable measure from test scores to basic safety, continue to perform at a mediocre level. That should come as no surprise. I think you all know without my telling you that no monopoly in history has ever been reformed by raising its prices, or for that matter expanding office hours, building more office space, or even by making its customers wear uniforms.

Now, we have a new administration. President Bush and Secretary Paige are in charge and we are fortunate that they are because they bring impressive credentials and the best of intentions to bear.

As you know they have proposed instituting standards and accountability and that is very salutory. Every good CEO taking over a business would institute standards and demand accountability. But they still would have to compete against other suppliers. So, I submit that standards and accountability – while beneficial for the organization you are in charge of, are in no way the equal of, or a substitute for competition and freedom of choice.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are paying a huge price by being so willfully myopic. By refusing to open this system up, we continue to perpetuate a kind of educational apartheid. While more affluent families can buy themselves better options — either by sending their children to private schools, or moving out to more expensive suburbs with better public schools – poor parents are stuck with no option other than government schools that can’t teach or even protect their children. The result: 70 percent of our inner city 4th graders are unable to read at even a basic level – that’s according to the Department of Education. To illustrate a point I made just a moment ago: right here, in our nation’s capital, we have the highest per pupil education spending, and lowest performance, of any urban school district in America. Normally we expect children to learn more as they advance through schools, but this school system has managed to turn that expectation on its head — according to a report issued by the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority in November, 1996, “the longer students stay in the District’s public school system, the less likely they are to succeed educationally.”

It was this kind of inequality that convinced me three years ago to start the Children’s Scholarship Fund. John Walton and I pooled together $200 million, and offered some 40,000 scholarships. Our offices were completely overwhelmed by the response: we received 1.25 million applications from all over the country – sent in, in some cities from as many as a third of the eligible population. Consider that these were all from people who were already getting their product for free, who had an average yearly income of $20,000 a year, and yet who were willing to put up $1,000 per child in order to take advantage of these partial scholarships. And some people still seriously suggest that parents don’t care or aren’t qualified to be in charge of their children’s education.

Well, I think I have news for you – very big news. We commissioned the SWR Whitman Group and The Wirthlin Group to produce bi-partisan polling on this subject. The results are eye-opening. 69% of those polled believed parents, as opposed to government, should set the standards for educational performance. 72% agreed that our educational system would be improved if there were a multitude of suppliers. And 82% believed parents should be able to choose their children’s school. You have the full survey and methodology in your press kits.

So we verified what parents want. We also wanted to know what teachers thought. More than 11,000 teachers, including Polly Broussard of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, Ernestine Sanders of Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, Michigan, Michael Feinberg of KIPP Academies in Houston, Guy Doud of Staples, Minnesota, and Thomas Fleming of Michigan, both of whom are National Public School Teachers of the Year, and all of whom are here today, have signed onto a Statement of Principles which says amongst other things:

We believe: Parents and guardians, not government, have primary responsibility for and authority over their children’s education.

We believe: Children are the reason for a system of education, and that system’s needs must not take precedence over the needs of children;

We believe: Teaching is a profession and good teachers deserve recognition and compensation based on their performance.

We believe: Government currently controls the vast majority of schools in this country; our system of education would be improved by a multitude of providers as opposed to a government monopoly.

And by the way, not only do 11,000 teachers support these principles – so do two Secretaries of Education, Bill Bennett and Joe Califano. A third, current Secretary of Education Rod Paige, speaking at a conference I also addressed just last month, declared that, “the idea of public school monopoly is dead. It needs to be relegated to the Smithsonian.” He also said to me, “Ted, the arguments against your position are all bogus.”

The support of thousands of teachers and millions of parents – is why I’m here today. I’m here to launch Parents in Charge, a bipartisan organization which advocates the following:

That every child – regardless of race, creed, or household income – must have an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. That parents have a prior right to determine what sort of education be given to their child. And therefore that parents have a right to choose: where their children attend school, and have a say in who teaches them, and what they learn.

We have created Parents in Charge to advance these principles, and to educate America in a national campaign as to the real problems and real possibilities of American education.

While we know that monopolies don’t work – we also know what does. Freedom of choice and competition work. Listen to what my fellow board member and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles has to say: “There has never been an industry, never been a company, never been a product that has not been improved by competition.”

We have an example of this, even within education itself. It’s our system of higher education – and it’s the envy of the world. Consumers are free to choose among all sorts of different options – including state-run, and even religious institutions. And suppliers are free to set up schools, compete on a fairly level playing field, and even, after meeting certain basic certifications, receive government funding – which, by the way, isn’t considered school aid, but student aid. This kind of freedom for consumers and freedom for suppliers produces high quality, innovation, and specialization to meet a diverse universe of students’ needs.

You can go at night, part time, or even online; you can pursue general studies, or a specific discipline. And if you aren’t satisfied, you aren’t going to be forced to sit there for four years – you can transfer to a school that better suits your goals and needs.

For the same kind of thing to occur in our primary and secondary schools we need to have equality of opportunity not just for consumers, but for suppliers as well. It’s no good to say that families are free to choose their children’s schools when there are no schools to choose from. This was brought home to me a year ago when we offered to fill every empty seat in New York’s private and parochial schools. While we were able to help 3,400 children. there are 162,000 children still waiting to be helped.

And there’s no where for them to go. There’s no supply because suppliers don’t have an equal opportunity to compete. How can they – when their customers have to pay twice, first in terms of taxes, then in terms of tuition? No wonder the majority of existing suppliers are either those who are willing to forgo making a profit – namely, parochial schools – or those elite institutions which cater to customers at the highest end of the income scale.

The powerful interests that work so tirelessly to maintain the status quo claim that fundamental changes would be too difficult and too disruptive. But consider this. The payment method would be the same. We would all continue to chip in with our tax dollars – some a great deal, some a little, some not at all. The government would continue to be the collection agent but not the sole supplier of the product. Instead, there would be multiple qualified suppliers – including the government. Parents would be free to choose among these suppliers and funding would be allocated on the basis of their choices.

Please remember, this was a right parents once enjoyed – and it was taken away. Horace Mann started us down this path proclaiming that parents should be taken out of the equation entirely and that their children should be considered “hostages” to the great cause of government schooling. What would happen if Mann’s “hostages” were released – if parents were put back in charge of their children’s education? Parents as consumers would demand quality, safety, and variety. Suppliers would utilize technology, innovation and private investment to compete for their business. The teaching profession would benefit as well. Yes, bad teachers would not make it. But good teachers would finally get the high regard and higher pay they deserve. And perhaps most importantly, I believe that putting parents in charge would revitalize families as well. We worry about the dissolution of families. But we have reaped what we have sown: by taking away one of the family’s most important responsibilities and bonding functions.

So here’s the bottom line of what I’m talking about: freedom, choice, competition. Equal opportunity for both consumers and suppliers. As I look out at all of you, I see some skeptical faces and I sympathize. This would have seemed pretty radical to me too when I appeared here three years ago with nothing more than a desire to help some underprivileged children. And I want to freely admit to you that with regard to the conventional wisdom on all sides of the so-called education debate, this is pretty different stuff. But I’ll bet that most of you will agree with me that what I’ve been talking about is pretty normal in most every other area of American life. Because I’m really just talking about freedom. I’m really just talking about making K-12 education look more like the rest of America – including our much admired university system.

Freedom ought not to be on trial – the absence of freedom should be. The burden of proof ought not to be on parents seeking their rights – but on those who would deny them those rights. We should all be seeking a system that educates the public – not continuing to live in denial about the anachronistic system we now have, in which so many children are left behind. I’m asking you to think about the possibility of a new day in which education would be more democratic, more creative and competitive – in a word, yes, so much more American than the system we have now. Thank you.