Wednesday, October 03, 2007

School Reform - Choice Needed

In the past two days there have been two New York Times opinion pieces decrying the state of America’s public schools. Both articles prescribe measures that they believe will “cure” the American public school system of its ills. Not one mention was made in either article, however, of the one cure proven to be effective: choice.

The first article, titled “Our Schools Must do Better,” calls for a “wholesale transformation of the public school system.” Yet how does author Bob Herbert plan to go about achieving this? He calls for improved teacher quality and more alternative schools. Not much of a wholesale transformation. In fact, improving teacher quality has been on the agenda since the public schooling system in America was created. Alternative schools, notably charter schools, have been in abundance since the 1980s. What is needed is indeed wholesale transformation of the public school system, but Herbert comes up woefully short in his plan for ‘revolution.’

What must be introduced, wholesale and nation-wide, is choice in our nation’s schooling. This can be accomplished quite easily with what are called education vouchers. An education voucher is a certificate by which parents are given the ability to pay for the education of their children at a school of their choice, rather than the public school to which they were assigned. For example, a parent can use an education voucher to send their children to a private high school instead of a public high school, as long as the child is eligible for acceptance. Additionally, parents would be able to send their children to whichever public school they choose, as opposed to being forced to send their children to the school in whichever district they live in.

Such a system would open faulty public schools up to competition and scrutiny. If parents feel their children aren’t being properly educated at one school, they may easily transfer them to another. In this way, schools unable to educate children up to their parents’ standards will be forced to either improve the quality of their education, or shut down. Such a system is the only way to ensure improved quality of education – it relies on that great arbiter of quality – the market. If Toyota produces cars of poor quality consumers will go to the multitude of other car companies – eventually Toyota will go out of business. Similarly, a school is forced to produce high quality education, thus ensuring that America’s education system will be improved across the board. Education vouchers, in essence, localize accountability as opposed to relying on government standards. Those standards, prescribed by Congressmen with no exposure to the schools themselves, or knowledge of what is truly needed in education, are clearly failing.

Education vouchers have seen tremendous success wherever they have been implemented, most notably in Sweden and Ireland, yet they continue to face difficulty in their implementation in the United States. Milwaukee has established a highly successful voucher system, with 26% of Milwaukee children receiving vouchers, but the federal government has been reticent to adopt vouchers as a means to improve education. Why? Simply put, teachers lobbies, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) have prevented vouchers from being implemented. Teachers fear vouchers for the same reason that they are so effective – they open education up to competition. Inadequate teachers will be forced to be replaced, so it is natural why teachers’ unions oppose such a measure. It is imperative, however, to establish education vouchers if one wants to improve the quality of education in the United States.

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