Parents Need to Lead Children Into Education That Works

I was in a hotel restaurant recently and asked the waitress if she had children. Yes, she said, she was a divorced mother of three. Then I asked her if she was in control of her children’s education. She said she was.

“Did you pick the schools they go to?” I asked. “Did you approve the curriculum they’re learning?”

“Heck, no,” she said. “I can’t even talk to who’s teaching them.”

Yet if grade school and high school education were run like our college and university system–or like any other business in the U.S.–that waitress would have 15 or 20 schools to choose from rather than the current monopoly that has failed many of our children, most of all poor minority ones.

The most upsetting aspect of the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress results was not the fact that average reading scores for fourth-graders have shown zero improvement over the past eight years. Nor was it the fact that 37% of students tested “below basic”–that is, they cannot grasp the meaning of what they read. Far more disturbing is the way this particular category breaks down: 63% of black fourth-graders, 58% of Latinos and 60% of poor children scored below basic.

Those test results confirm that we have created the equivalent of educational apartheid–a system that is miserably failing low-income, minority children.

Democracy means we can choose who to vote for, how to pray, what to read, whether to drive multi-ton vehicles up to 65 mph.

But those freedoms do not apply to K-12 education. We don’t allow people to choose where their children go to school, and we have one supplier with essentially no competition.

The United States was not always this way. Our founders consciously chose to base the country on an open system of education in which any legitimate supplier could enter the market and compete. Competition kept quality high and costs low. It wasn’t until 100 years after our founding that things changed, when Horace Mann persuaded the Massachusetts Legislature to start government-operated education.

We’ve increased spending 14-fold in inflation-adjusted terms since 1920, yet our schools continue to perform at a mediocre level on every measure, from test scores to safety. No monopoly in history has ever been reformed by raising its prices–let alone expanding office hours, building more office space or making its customers wear uniforms.

As former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles observed: “There has never been an industry, never been a company, never been a product that has not been improved by competition.” The most relevant example of this is our system of higher education. 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. The result is a system that’s the envy of the world.

For the same thing to occur in K-12 education, we need to have equality of opportunity not just for consumers, but for suppliers as well. Suppliers will not come forward to set up new schools when their potential customers have to pay twice: first taxes, then tuition. For real equality of opportunity and real competition, parents ought to be free to choose among various suppliers. Because society has a significant interest in educating the public, we should continue to contribute in the form of taxes to pay for education. The government would remain the collection agent but cease to be the sole supplier, and funding would be allocated on the basis of parents’ choices.

Support for such a change is growing. Polls we recently commissioned by SWR Whitman and the Wirthlin Group revealed that 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 schools. And 10,000 teachers have signed a statement of principles, including that “parents and guardians, not government, have primary responsibility for and authority over their children’s education.”

Change won’t come from within the system or from the politicians. True change in our history has only come from a mass movement of people demanding equal treatment, equal opportunity and an honest application of shared American ideals. This was how the civil rights movement sparked a moral awakening and profound political change. It will take a similar movement to give parents back control over their children’s education, something that a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court said in 1925 is a constitutional right.

Parents must lead. The politicians will follow.

Ted Forstmann is co-founder and CEO of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which has paid for 41,000 poor children in the U.S. to attend the elementary schools of their choice.