Escape from the Public Schools

Published September 1, 1995

When I debated Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, a couple of years ago on the Larry King radio show, he used a verb that I thought epitomized the battle over school choice: escape. As in, “we can’t let kids escape from the public schools.”

His words made me think of the Berlin Wall. That image comes to mind often as I tour schools in inner-city neighborhoods around the country always getting the sense that I’m venturing to the other side of an oppressive, impenetrable barrier.

The need to tear down that public school wall is compelling. In the Milwaukee Public Schools, children from families on public assistance have an 85 percent dropout rate. Those few who graduate do so with an average grade of “D.” The schools are rife with drugs and violence. Substitute for Milwaukee the name of any other large American city and the statistics are equally dismal.

Meanwhile, urban children with the same socioeconomic background, attending inner-city private schools, have a 95 percent graduation rate in safe, wholesome schools over which their parents exercise substantial influence.

But it’s not only poor kids who suffer from the public school monopoly: Eighty-eight percent of all American school children attend public schools controlled by public-sector bureaucracies and teachers’ unions, and which impart the statist values one would expect given that control.

School choice dramatically alters the status quo in two essential ways. First, it transfers decision-making over essential educational choices from bureaucrats to parents. Second, it forces public schools to compete for students. For those reasons, school choice on a mass scale would effect a staggering devolution of power from government to individuals.

Given such dynamics, the education establishment’s frenzied opposition to school choice is hardly surprising. What is startling, though, is that the likes of Keith Geiger and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker are joined by some misinformed conservatives and libertarians in blocking the way to school choice.

For such well-meaning naysayers, the argument against choice is what I call the “mighty might” rationale. That is, we should oppose school choice because it might lead to greater regulation of private schools that choose to accept vouchers, which might lead to a parade of unspecified consequences too horrible to imagine.

The regulatory concern, in fact, is overstated. The worst-case scenario the naysayers present is the example of higher education: Colleges and universities have accepted federal funds, and surely enough, some (mainly civil rights) regulations have followed. Yet even with that, the model is vastly preferable to the status quo in elementary and secondary schools. In colleges and universities, students who receive financial assistance have complete freedom of choice, which has provided strong competitive incentives in both the public and private sectors. The result is a postsecondary educational system second to none in the entire world. We can hardly say that about our command-and-control system of elementary and secondary schools.

Moreover, most choice proposals contain restrictions on regulations–restrictions that can be enforced in court, thereby providing greater protection than private schools currently enjoy. Even absent such restrictions, vigilance can help prevent regulatory abuses.

Privately funded vouchers, such as those provided to low-income students in the program sponsored by the Golden Rule Insurance Company in Indianapolis, are excellent and ultimately preferable to tax-funded vouchers. Nevertheless, those programs are, for now, too small and too few.

The most systemic means of fundamental reform remains school choice, which the Bradley Foundation’s Michael Joyce aptly has described as a “silver bullet” aimed at the heart of the regulatory welfare state. Let’s seize the moment and maybe wipe that smile off Keith Geiger’s face.

Written for The Heartland Institute by Clint Bolick, vice president and litigation director at the Institute for Justice. Nothing in his Heartland Perspective should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.