Twenty years ago, a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools. That tide has now reached flood stage, and growing numbers of jurisdictions have decided to empower parents to bail out of their failed public schools. More will surely follow.
The latest jurisdiction - and potentially the most important because of its location and heavy minority majority - is the pathetic District of Columbia public school system. More money is spent per student here than any other place, but students are among the worst educated.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has had enough. As recently as February, Williams, a Democrat, opposed vouchers to give parents and students a choice of where to educate their children. On May 1, accompanied by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Williams announced his conversion. "I fully and strongly support (President Bush's) initiative to bring scholarships to this city," he said. Answering a commonly heard objection to vouchers that they would "drain" money from public schools, Williams added, "We will find that our regular public schools will end up in better shape." Competition does that, monopolies the reverse.
This fall, Colorado begins the nation's largest school voucher program. Eventually, 20,000 of Colorado's neediest public school children will be able to receive academic help in private schools.
Teachers unions oppose school choice, but many teachers send their children to private schools because they have experienced the low-quality education their children would get in the schools where they teach. Many elected Democrats also oppose school choice because the unions give them campaign money. That could change if Democrats take political heat for their anti-choice stand.
In 1997, the moderate Democratic Leadership Council found only 3 percent of Americans gave the nation's public schools an "A" grade, while 43 percent chose between "D" and "F." According to the 33rd Annual Phi Kappa Delta/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, only 25 percent of parents with public school children give those schools an "A" or "B," while 70 percent gave them "C," "D" or "F." In the black community, where children are disproportionately denied their right to a good education, 58 percent of African-Americans rate their local public schools "fair" or "poor," according to a 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
To those who object that vouchers would violate church-state separation if parents opted for religious schools for their children, Chief Justice William Rehnquist dealt with that concern in the Supreme Court's ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Rehnquist said: "We believe the program challenged here is a program of true private choice. The Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district."
Government spending on K-12 schools in the United States ($6,857 per pupil) is higher than in any other developed country. Yet, 9- and 13-year-old American students rank last in mathematics and science among students from the seven large countries that administered the most recent International Assessment of Education Progress. (See the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation Web page: www.friedmanfoundation.org.)
It is more than irony that Republicans are the staunchest backers of school choice when the beneficiaries are primarily minority children whose parents mostly vote for Democrats, and Democrats oppose it in the face of overwhelming approval among one of their biggest constituencies.
A market economy offers larger slices of the economic pie to all who are willing to work for it. A market education system will offer a better education for children, which is their ticket to success. Some politicians say more money is the answer to the problems in the public schools. If it were, the United States would have the best educated students on earth, because we are spending record amounts.
School choice is the answer. If the politicians and unions stand in their way, parents, who care more about their children than a politician ever will, are going to demand, and get, the schools they want and their children need. That's the message from Mayor Williams' turnaround.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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