Howard Rich's Blog

June 5, 2009

The Inevitability of Parental Choice

A year ago, the nation’s largest newspaper wrote in an editorial that it was time to “move beyond vouchers” in the debate over America’s educational future.

Although it did not reject any particular solution outright, the paper’s recommendation at the time was that America focuses its energy and attention on less controversial education reforms. In other words, it was a victory for those who have spent years – and expended untold taxpayer resources – in an effort to demonize parental choice and its supporters.

Then, two weeks ago, USA Today suddenly changed its tune.

Not only did the paper enthusiastically embrace parental choice – it also roundly criticized our nation’s teachers’ unions for “protecting failing schools.”

“Twenty million low-income school kids need a chance to succeed,” the USA Today editorial board wrote. “School choice is the most effective way to give it to them.”

What caused the turnaround?

While there’s certainly no shortage of reasons, the initial impetus for the shift appears to stem from President Barack Obama’s rank hypocrisy in closing an effective parental choice program in Washington D.C. to new applicants.

“Teacher unions, fearing loss of jobs, have pushed most Democrats to oppose vouchers and other options that invite competition for public schools,” the USA Today editorial board wrote. “Put another way, they oppose giving poor parents the same choice that the president himself — along with his chief of staff and some 35% of Democrats in Congress — have made in sending their children to private schools.”

Of course, it’s not just about failing schools and low-income students. It’s about giving all parents a choice in their child’s academic future, no matter where they live.

With each passing day, the mountain of evidence attesting to the futility of our nation’s failed status quo grows higher. Correspondingly, in those rare instances where choice has been permitted to take root and flourish, its success is undeniable.

According to the most recent data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), America’s per pupil expenditure on public education is the highest of any industrialized nation in the world.

Unfortunately, we are not receiving anywhere near a commensurate return on our investment.

On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, American students scored well below the average of other industrialized nations on both the math and science portions of the exam – just as they did the last time the tests were administered. And the time before that.

And in a telling nod to the sort of institutional incompetence that has long plagued our public system, America’s reading scores on the most recent PISA exam had to be thrown out due to a printing error by the company that the U.S. Department of Education hired to administer the tests.

But our crisis is much bigger than poor standardized test results and bureaucratic errors. Over 12,000 schools across America currently rate as failing or below average – with hundreds of thousands of children trapped inside of them. Of course, each year when organizations like “Teach for America” try to place talented, highly-motivated college graduates in teaching positions within higher-risk school districts, their efforts are always rebuffed by the unions.

Each year, the purveyors of this country’s education monopoly continue failing children at a record clip – and yet in a perfect example of precisely what’s wrong with our system, they are rewarded for their poor performance with additional taxpayer resources.

In fact, according to President Obama’s plan – the more children you fail, the more money you get.

This self-perpetuating cycle serves no one. It doesn’t serve our children, it doesn’t serve their parents, and it doesn’t serve the best interests of our country.

Nor are we well-served by pretending that our “average” public schools are meeting the needs of most middle income children.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, we cannot afford to maintain a failed status quo on one hand and mediocrity on the other.

USA Today’s acknowledgment of this fact – and its support for parental choice – is yet another example of the inevitable march toward a system of education that promotes true academic achievement, a system built around a competitive, parent-driven marketplace where schools are held accountable for their performance.

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