America Needs a School Choice Perestroika

David Spady

1/28/2011 12:01:00 AM - David Spady

40-year-old Kelly Williams-Bolar lives in a housing project in Akron, Ohio. The local public school that her children were trapped in is one of the worst performing schools in the state. GreatSchools, the country’s leading source of information on school performance, gave Akron City School District a 4/10 rating. Her two girls have no choice in where they go to school, but Kelly wanted something better for them. Now Kelly is facing 10 days in jail, two years of probation, 80 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine. Her crime – in desperation to give her children a better education, she gave false information to a school district in order to enroll them in a different school, Copley-Fairlawn, where children are excelling. Reading proficiency is 30% higher than Akron, math is 32% higher, and GreatSchools gave Copley-Fairlawn City School District a 9/10 rating.

There’s a certain irony that this story appeared in newspapers across the country during National School Choice Week. It provides a fitting example of what can happen when parents don’t have the freedom to choose the best education option for their children. In the United States, a child’s future should not be determined by their zip code. Why shouldn’t mothers like Kelly have the right to choose a better education for their children? The status quo in America’s K-12 education system is not acceptable. Entrenched education bureaucracies and education union bosses have kept real education reform off the table for far too long. But perhaps that’s about to change. Recent elections have produced several choice-friendly state legislatures, and with reform oriented governors, that could provide a tipping point for educational choice. Most notable are Florida, Indiana and South Carolina.

Political commentator Dick Morris has been travelling across the country this week on an Education Revolution Tour to bring attention to the need for school choice. Morris claims the education system is the only remnant of true socialism in America. The analogy is apropos when one considers the dominate control government maintains over public schools, resulting in a clear lack of choice, lack of freedom and lack of achievement.

But there is hope for America’s public schools, and history provides a valuable lesson. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union posed a grave threat to America’s freedom and security. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that just twenty years ago the communist Soviet Union crumbled. Things can change quickly—but only once meaningful reform is implemented. That’s exactly what happened in the Soviet Union.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took office, he spearheaded a political movement called Perestroika. This fundamental “restructuring” of Communist Party rule gave citizens a taste of freedom and a free-market economy they had never known. And once they knew what freedom felt like, it wasn’t long before the Soviet Union crumbled from within.

School choice can be America’s education Perestroika. It’s a fundamental restructuring of a decaying system that will provide new freedoms, educational opportunity and hope to families across the nation.

Florida is the first state to prove choice in education works. It has the strongest charter school liberties in the nation, scholarships for needy children and newly-elected Governor, Rick Scott, now wants to expand school choice to include full vouchers so that the money is attached to the student and parents can determine which school will educate their child. Florida is also providing greater options for students through virtual schooling utilizing new technologies.

Since education reforms were first implemented during Governor Jeb Bush’s tenure, the results have been nothing less than amazing. According to Matthew Ladner with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “In 1998, 47 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored ‘below basic’ on the NAEP reading test, meaning they couldn’t read. By 2007, 70 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored basic or above—a remarkable improvement.”

Other states are beginning to take note of Florida’s success. The crumbling of the failed system is underway.

Like the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, teachers unions and the bureaucratic system are the greatest hindrance to meaningful reform. Their chokehold on education has prevented any significant changes that could dramatically improve the future of school children and the country at large.

Americans revel in unprecedented freedom in almost every aspect of our lives, but unfortunately there is one highly personal and critically important area where they have little freedom of choice: K-12 education. Instead, most parents are trapped by geography into sending their children to public schools that repeatedly graduate students unable to read, write, or perform fundamental math. Every time one of these subpar institutions graduates a student unable to read their own diploma, the American Dream is lost for yet another child and our nation’s prosperity is diminished.

Kelly Williams-Bolar’s daughters will likely be forced back into a sub-par school district, and their tragic situation made more tragic with their mother facing jail-time, probation, community service and a heavy fine to pay. Their dream for a better education may be shattered for now, but there is hope on the horizon. Once educational freedom and universal parental choice options become a reality in one of these states, the taste of freedom will spread, and like the domino effect of the Soviet collapse, America’s education system will be permanently changed.