Want to Help the Middle Class? Embrace School Choice

Posted: Oct 12, 2006 4:08 PM
Want to Help the Middle Class?  Embrace School Choice

With the Congressional election a month away, Democrats are offering another reason to vote for change: middle class anxiety under the Bush administration. At a recent event, Democratic senators released a report detailing the financial troubles facing America’s middle class, and placed the blame squarely with the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats explained that the middle class “ now finds itself squeezed between rising costs and stagnant wages” and promised policies “that will create better jobs at better pay, affordable and accessible health care and education, and an ease to the middle-class squeeze.” [http://democrats.senate.gov/newsroom/record.cfm?id=263502&]

Promises to help the middle class are as common in campaigns as yard signs. Both political parties claim their agenda will benefit the middle class the most. Democrats typically see more government—new regulations and services—as the solution. They push for a higher minimum wage, more government provided healthcare, more government funding for daycare, subsidies for college costs, and other government programs. Republicans traditionally view government as the problem and the market as the path to greater affordability. Republicans champion tax cuts, greater competition in healthcare, and fewer regulations.

Yet there may be some common ground. If Democrats listen to the authors of their recently released report, “Increasing Pressure on the Middle Class,” there is the chance for bipartisan agreement on one agenda item to ease the middle Americans financial strain: education reform and school choice.

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, who wrote the report highlighted by Senate Democrats, also wrote a book called The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. In their book, Warren and Tyagi highlight why parents make significant financial sacrifices—and take significant risks—to pay for an expensive home: they want to give their children the best start possible, and “the best possible start begins with good schools, but parents are scrambling to find those schools.”

The problem is that where children attend school, for the most part, is dictated by where they live. Parents unhappy with their local public school can either opt out of the public school system and pay private school tuition, or can move residences. During the last decade, housing costs have climbed overall, but parents have been particularly affected as families bid up home prices in the few areas that offer high quality public schools. Warren and Tyagi’s recent report reiterates the important role housing plays in family finances. Housing remains a family’s biggest expense and the costs of owning and maintaining a home have increased by 23 percent (or more than $300 a month) during the past 5 years.

What can policymakers do to address this problem? In The Two Income Trap, Warren and Tyagi offer policymaker clear advise: “Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because in happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district. A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.” Policymakers across the country have been taking this advice. There are a growing number of programs that give parents new ways to select schools for their children. According to the Heritage Foundation (http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/upload/bg_1970.pdf), 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools, which are alternative public schools that parents can select for their children, and thirteen states now have voucher programs or education tax credit programs that are designed to help parents afford private schools. In all, more than a million children are attending charter or private schools of choice this school year.

School choice programs have been shown to improve student outcomes and increase parental satisfaction with their children’s schooling. The fact that these programs may also help alleviate the middle class financial crunch is just another reason for policymakers to embrace them.

The Democrats are right: too many middle class families struggle to make ends meet. School choice is part of the solution to this problem. It’s an agenda item that deserves to be on the top of both parties’ platforms.