At one time, Missouri House Education Committee Chairwoman Jane Cunningham thought Mae Duggan, Missouri’s First Lady of school choice activism, was “nuts.”
That was when Cunningham was a newly elected school board official in 1989, listening to Duggan’s reasoning on giving parents choice in the education of their children. It was not until Cunningham had spent some time as an insider on the politics of public education in her high-expenditure, highly esteemed district that she realized the central problem in American education was evident in her own hometown: a monopoly that precludes true reform and reinforces policies that produce mediocrity.
“I could not even get the Board to discuss a survey or exit interview [with parents who had left the system],” Cunningham said. She wanted to find out why 50 percent of parents in the wealthy district were choosing private schooling over the public schools–“what it was they did not like about the educational product they were paying for with their taxes.”
Cunningham was shocked and sickened when she was let in on the prevailing attitude about the flight to private schools: “We have fewer children to educate and we still get their taxes,” was the response of her school board colleagues.
In the school district where Cunningham lived, “the reason they did not change as a result of families leaving and the reason they almost welcomed it, was money,” Cunningham explained. “Because they are a very wealthy district, the district receives only about $200 from the state per child annually. The rest is from local property taxes.
“That statement lit a fire inside of me that won’t go out,” she said. “The results of the monopoly were easy to recognize with my economics background, and I became a convert to the parental choice, educational freedom movement.”
In short, Mae Duggan, who had been working towards educational freedom since 1959, was “no longer ‘nuts.'”
Soon thereafter, Cunningham moved one of her sons from the public school system to a Catholic school. After making As and Bs in math at his public school, he tested at only the 30th percentile in math computation at his new school, Immacolata Elementary.
“The staff at the Catholic school thought he must have a learning disability, because they could not imagine his local school had done such a poor job,” she said. After intensive personal attention by his teacher, her son rose to the 90th percentile in math. Cunningham wrote a letter to her local newspaper about her son’s experience.
“My hat’s off to Catholic Schools Superintendent George Henry,” she wrote, pointing out her son’s rise in math skills. “The per-pupil expenditure at the public school is over $9,000 while the tuition for a non-Catholic at Immacolata is $2,500. The funds should follow the results.”
Cunningham’s son is now a sophomore at the University of Texas on a Navy R.O.T.C. scholarship.
As a result of these experiences, Cunningham began working more fervently for school choice. She was elected to the state legislature, eventually becoming chair of the House Education Committee. She has come to the conclusion that it is the “one-size-fits-all” public school model that creates the most problems. She does not understand why public school leaders usually disdain the concept of school choice, and fear it.
“If they are providing a quality educational product, it will be a revenue producer for them because families would line up to get in,” she said.
In 2003, Cunningham sponsored two school choice bills, both designed “to get folks comfortable with the concept.” One bill addressed the issue of access to programs in public schools denied to non-public schoolchildren whose families were residing in and paying taxes to the public schools. The other, HB 345, would have given school choice to at-risk children in low-income families and in families where a parent is a prison inmate. Although neither bill passed, she was happy to be able to bring some Black Caucus members on board with HB 345.
Combining her concerns for the social good and fiscal responsibility, Cunningham suggests the following approach: “I believe if we offered families one-half of what it costs to educate a child in their local public school if they chose to move to a non-public school, we would have happier, higher-achieving students and the states would all have balanced budgets with the money saved.”
Laura J. Swartley is communications director with the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her email address is [email protected].