Education Emerging as Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century

Published December 1, 2004

Education is the number one civil rights issue for blacks in the twenty-first century because, 50 years after the Brown decision declared “separate but equal” public education to be unconstitutional, both blacks and Hispanics suffer disproportionately from being educated poorly, contended Lee Walker, president of The New Coalition for Economic & Social Change, during a recent panel discussion on “The Future of Vouchers.”

Walker was speaking at The Heartland Institute’s first-ever Emerging Issues Forum, held at the Art Institute in Chicago on September 23. Other panelists were Robert Enlow, executive director of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and David Salisbury, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.

“Young blacks and Hispanics must be equipped to graduate and be productive members of American society,” said Walker. With a quality education, these young people could take advantage of the free market, become entrepreneurs, and get involved in wealth creation.

But their actual education isn’t preparing them for that. Blacks score the lowest in every subject category and Hispanics do only “a tad better.” The problem, in Walker’s view, is that too many educators have low expectations of black and Hispanic students. Parents may have high expectations for their children, children may have high expectations for themselves, but too many of their teachers say, “They won’t succeed.”

“Parents cannot eliminate the gap, only teachers can eliminate the gap,” said Walker. “The teachers have to have high expectations of the students.”

High Revenues, Low Productivity

The panel was moderated by the present author, who introduced the topic by noting public education in the U.S. has revenues of more than $500 billion a year–more than $11,000 per student.

While productivity in the private sector has soared for the past three decades, productivity in the public education sector has fallen, making it much more expensive today to produce the same educational achievement as 30 years ago. (See “U.S. Productivity Soars in Business, Slumps in Education,” School Reform News, September 2004.) The aim of school choice is to make the education industry work more efficiently for the benefit of students and taxpayers.

“The principles behind school choice are very simple: Parents should choose schools, the funding should follow the child to the chosen school, and the chosen school gets to spend the money,” I said. “It’s as simple as that.”

School Choice Messages

The messages that school choice allies started sending out about six years ago also were very simple, noted panelist Enlow. Those messages, which the Friedman Foundation helped to hone, were: School choice is widespread unless you’re poor, school choice works, and the opposition isn’t telling the truth.

“All the studies say school choice works, not just for parents, who are more satisfied, but for students, who are better educated,” said Enlow, noting the aim of the messages was to create an environment where school choice became an accepted public policy.

“Now, in almost every state, school choice is on the menu of public options,” he said. In addition, a recent poll for the Friedman Foundation showed voters were more likely to support a candidate who supported school choice.

Looking forward, Enlow argued the school choice movement should promote a message about getting better mileage out of the public education dollar. It’s a message he thinks would resonate because a recent poll shows the American public doesn’t think schools spend their tax dollars wisely.

“We need to better understand perceptions on money and leverage this issue, and we need to undertake efforts to know and follow the public money,” said Enlow, pointing out the public holds two contradictory views about spending on public education: “Most don’t think we spend enough, [but] they don’t actually know or have a clue about how much we do spend.”

Not Just Any Program

While the American public as a whole may still think spending on public education isn’t high enough, many individuals have concluded the problem with public education is not a lack of funding but a lack of freedom, added panelist Salisbury. Recognizing many choices are available in environments where consumers have the purchasing power, reformers began about 15 years ago to develop a range of school choice programs to allow the market to play a greater role in the education of children.

There are now 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have school choice programs either through vouchers or school tax credits.

“Unfortunately, all of these programs place a number of limitations, either on the number of students that can participate, or limitations on private schools that can participate, or they place caps on the vouchers, or they restrict parents from paying additional fees beyond what a voucher pays,” said Salisbury. “These limitations … dilute the benefits … of what we would see if we had a more universally available, more fully competitive education marketplace.”

What needs to done in the future is move beyond these limited programs, he argued. Instead of accepting any proposal that calls itself “school choice,” school choice advocates must encourage legislators and policymakers to craft programs that do actually have the features necessary to produce a competitive education market. Those features include:

  • private school autonomy, particularly over admissions;
  • freedom for private schools to hire staff based on their missions;
  • freedom for private schools to choose a standard other than the state standard;
  • freedom of private schools to set prices; and
  • more flexibility for public schools.

“If we’re going to solve our K-12 education problems in this country …, we’ve got to adopt good school choice,” concluded Salisbury.

The Emerging Issues Forum featured 23 speakers on six panels and attracted 125 attendees. Besides education reform, other panel topics included effective strategies for defending taxpayers, consumer-driven health care, and lawsuit abuse. The Heartland Institute plans to publish the proceedings of the forum in a small book later this year.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.