It’s Time for School Choice!

Posted: Nov 22, 2010 12:01 AM

Take time to watch Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, voted best U.S. documentary at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and you’ll be confronted with the sorry state of America’s school system. How can America invent a more innovative and profitable future without a quality education system? In response, experts suggest that the dismissal of 1,000 of the country’s worst teachers would allow our great teachers to build on what’s been learned instead of being stuck teaching students what they should’ve already mastered.

But teacher unions resist any attempts to discipline and fire failing, sub-standard teachers. They also have squashed any attempt to pay for performance—rewarding at a higher level the best teachers and minimizing the pay of the less effective teachers. Instead of being part of the solution, they just keep campaigning for more money. With an exploding deficit at the national and state level, the funds aren’t there.

As President Obama’s team love to say, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Maybe it’s time “we the people” just blew our educational system wide open, and I don’t mean improve the Department of Education. Improvements are for wimps. I mean abolish it. Deep six it. Eliminate, toss, obliterate it; give it the old heave-ho; force it to walk the plank. It is broken and it’s wasting money our government doesn’t have while limiting education of our young people.

Continuing studies by the Pacific Research Institute have found that there are proven options that cost less, produce better results and keep and reward the best teachers and schools. It’s time we do more than read about what other countries are doing to become more American than America.

With California now facing a $25 billion plus deficit, it’s time for truly transformational change. That’s what happened in Sweden when political parties came together in times of fiscal crisis to institute a major transformation of Sweden’s educational system. Sweden, that bastion of progressive policies, let parents once again control where their children received their education. They moved from a school-district-controlled system to a voucher system that fostered competition and rewarded excellence in education.

In summary, the Swedish model is built on two pillars of choice: a voucher system at both the primary and secondary levels and varied high school tracks that allow students to choose from a smorgasbord of programs centered on three paths: college preparatory, vocational and a more remedial track.

But it’s the voucher system that allows students to go to any school that fits their needs. Instead of giving money to school districts, the government attaches money to each student following him wherever he goes. Students with special needs – such as those from non-Swedish-speaking backgrounds – receive extra support.

What was once controversial when introduced in the early ’90s is now widely popular, and the results have shown rising standards across the board. The program has also helped desegregate schools in cities with large immigrant populations.

“It’s a way for the high achievers to get out of the environment that is holding them back,” said Fredric Skälstad, political adviser to the Swedish Minister of Education, quoted in a report by Clayton M. McCleskey, a Fulbright journalism scholar. “You can change your situation. You do not just go to a certain school because a bureaucrat drew a line on a map. This is a way for everyone to be able to make something out of themselves.”

Since schools compete with each other in Sweden, every high school is a “magnet school,” offering specialized programs to recruit students. As my friend Leif Johansson has said, “Of course it works. I have family working in the schools. With vouchers, it’s all about getting butts in the seats. And the only way you do that is by giving quality education. They pay well for the best teachers; they put tablecloths and flowers on the tables; some have only one administrator for two schools. The focus is on one thing—giving youth a quality education. The real winners are the good teachers and the well-educated students.”

The U.S. has the best higher education system in the world in great part because universities compete for survival. It’s time we do so for the primary and secondary level. Instead of forcing our children to stay in expensive, public schools run by slow-moving bureaucracies that face little competition, let’s let our children follow and develop their dreams, whether than means going to college or becoming a mechanic or fashion designer. Let’s fund dreams, not school districts and teachers’ unions who refuse to hold their own accountable!

Want to see more? Lance Izumi has done a video op-ed, Sweden’s Choice, for the New York Times that chronicles the effectiveness of the Swedish voucher system. Lance Izumi, their senior director of education studies, asserts, “There isn’t anything that discounts the Swedish model as something the U.S. can’t look at.” It’s time we invest in the education of our greatest resource—our youth. And it’s time we make a smart investment by giving you back control of your children’s future! Don’t settle for the status quo! “We the People” want solutions that work and use our tax dollars responsibly.