Conventional wisdom is that government must run the schools. But government monopolies don't do anything well. They fail because they have no real competition. Yet competition is what gives us better phones, movies, cars -- everything that's good.
If governments produced cars, we'd have terrible cars. Actually, governments once did produce cars. The Soviet bloc puts its best engineers to work and came up with the Yugo, the Volga and the Trabant. The Trabant was the best -- the pride of the Eastern Bloc. It was produced by actual German engineers -- known for their brilliance. Yet even the Trabant was a terrible car. Drivers had to put the oil and gas in separately and then shake the car to mix them. Trabants broke down and spewed pollution. When government runs things, consumers suffer.
Our school system is like the Trabant. Economist Milton Friedman understood this before the rest of us did. In 1955, he proposed school vouchers. His plan didn't call for separating school and state -- unfortunately -- but instead sought a second-best fix: Give a voucher to the family, and let it choose which school -- government-run or private -- their child will attend. Schools would compete for that voucher money. Today, it would be worth $13,000 per child. (That's what America spends per student today.) Competition would then improve all schools.
Friedman's idea was ignored for decades, but now there are voucher experiments in many states.
Do vouchers work? You bet they do. Just ask the low-income kids in Washington, D.C., who have participated in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The U.S. Department of Education found that the voucher kids read better than their government-school counterparts.
So what did the politicians do? Expand the program? No. Two years ago, President Obama killed it. Why?
"The president has concerns about ... talking large amounts of funding out of the system," then-press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Voucher families protested. One voucher student, Ronald Holassie, said, "President Barack Obama, you say that getting an education is a key to success, but why do you sit there and let my education and others be taken away?"
The program was reauthorized only after John Boehner became speaker of the House and insisted on it.
Holassie says the difference between a government school and his private school was dramatic.
"In the public school system when I was in there, (there were) lots of fights. There were shootings, stabbings, and it was really unsafe -- drugs."
The Opportunity Scholarship didn't offer the full $20,000 that the district squanders on its public schools. It was worth just $7,000, but that was enough to get Ronald into a Catholic school.
"I was actually challenged academically," he said. "I remember when I was in the public school system, my teacher left in the middle of the year. I remember doing crossword puzzles and stuff like that. We weren't actually learning."
He says most of his government-school teachers acted like they didn't care. His mother, who's from Trinidad, was going to send him there because the schools are better than American schools.
"She wasn't going to continue to just let this system fail me."
But he got the voucher and a good education, and now he's in college.
Despite the data showing that voucher kids are ahead in reading, the biggest teachers union, the NEA claims: "The D.C. voucher program has been a failure. It's yielded no evidence of positive impact on student achievement."
Holassie asks: "How is it a failure when the public school system is failing students? I don't understand that."
I don't understand it either. Vouchers aren't a perfect solution, but they are better that leaving every student a prisoner of a government monopoly. District government schools have only a 49 percent graduation rate. Ninety-one percent of the voucher students graduate.
Why would the union call that a failure? Because vouchers allow parents to make choices, and many parents would chose non-union, non-government-run schools. The school establishment can't abide this. Too much money and power are at stake.