Heartland Institute Panel Discusses the Urgency of School Choice

Published February 2, 2016

National School Choice Week is held every January. This year’s event took place from January 24 – 30, 2016. Throughout the U.S. over 16,000 events were held, with Illinois having 918 events, the most of any state. Here in Illlinois, 300,000 take advantage of personal tax credits, a form of school choice. Illinois allows families to claim credits worth 25% of their educational expenses. Worthwhile checking out is A History of School Choice from 1923 to 2015.

Those who attended the National School Choice Week Event sponsored by The Heartland Institute, 3939 North Wilke Road in Arlington Heights, IL, on Saturday, January 30, 2016, were privileged to hear a rostrum of fine speakers talk about how education choice benefits all students across Chicagoland and across the country, for doesn’t every child deserve access to a quality education? 

Lennie Jarratt, project manager for education transformation at The Heartland Institute, organized the event.  For those who couldn’t attend Heartland’s stellar National School Choice Week event, the occasion was live-streamed.  Here is the link to view the entire event: https://youtu.be/6DJzBywtovU?t=3m16s .   

Illinois State Rep. Tom Morrison (R-Palatine) introduced each speaker to an attentive audience. Morrison is convinced, from his own teaching days, that when parents become more involved, the likelihood of children succeeding is much higher. Morrison further believes that the new government under Governor Rauner speaks well for a dramatic shift to take place in Illinois on the issue of school choice. As a champion of fighting for school choice in the House,Morrison sponsored HB0427 in the 99th General Assembly to require the State Board of Education to create the Education Savings Account Program.

Other poignant school choice thoughts expressed by Rep. Morrison:

  • Choice is not just about academics.  A host of other reasons come into play to explain the popularity of school choice.
  • A wide desire for school choice exists across party lines.
  • 1960 marks the year when a Renaissance of home schooling took place.
  •  Currently 1 to 1-1/2 children in this nation are being home schooled. They are doing well.  Colleges want them.

Heartland Senior Fellow Bruno Behrend:  to view – https://youtu.be/6DJzBywtovU?t=10m50s

The first speaker, Bruno Behrend, J.D., a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute, spoke on the current state of school choice and where it goes from here. Bruno’s involvement with the school choice issue date back to August, 2010, when he co-authored a Heartland Policy Brief with Joe Bast, CEO and president of Heartland, and Policy Advisor Ben Boychuk, titled “The Parent Trigger:  A Model for Transforming Education.”

These four words are golden to Mr. Behrnd:  “Fund Children, Not Districts.”  Despite massive run-ups in educational funding, the results aren’t student-oriented when 85% of a school budget is spent on staff and teacher salaries. Bruno spoke with concern about the shifting ground of education, while concurrently expressing hope for the future of education.  Rated highly by Bruno was the on-line Khan Academy, where children can learn anything for free through 10-minute videos on every subject. To track student achievement, a Dashboard exists so students can note each positive learning experience as it occurs.

Basic to Mr. Behrend’s thinking is that it’s time to begin the process of dismantling the public school structure. This question was entertained by Bruno: “Do we really need to save or reform a 19th century system of education that existed because of an agrarian society that needed a three month break to tend the fields?” 

The current educational system doesn’t need fixing or reforming, but instead we must transcend from a brick and mortar system designed in the19th century which costs way too much. Skipping the 20th century, we must progress toward a system where money follows children to an array of choices. 

It is choice that is under attack. For Mr. Behrend choice constitutes a political debate, not a scientific one.  A common complaint heard from those who oppose school choice: “Don’t take money away from my district!”  But isn’t that the whole idea to fund children and not the district with money following the children?  

Might something else come along, mused Bruno, that would disrupt the whole system now run by the educational cartel in much the same as what Uber did to taxis and price line did to travel agencies?  It could possibly be an app developed for a phone where parents could pick the educational system best suited for their children.  In time the established educational cartel would cease to exist when its participation rate hollowed out with fewer and fewer students participating. We have education literally falling out of the sky to free education from its traditional brick and mortar status. 

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, spoke with pride of Catholic schools and how they provide quality seats for school choice.  As superintendent of the Archdioceses of Chicago Catholic Schools from 2008 to 2014 (includes Cook and Lake County), Sr. Mary Paul oversaw the largest Catholic school system in the United States, with nearly 85,000 students and more than 7,000 educators in 244 elementary and high schools. 

Sister Mary Paul describes Catholic schools as “private schools that have a public good.”  Accordingly, Catholic schools have an impact on the community in which they are located. If a Catholic school closes in a neighborhood, violence goes up.  Stats given: 

  • Children are twice or three times more likely to graduate from high school if they attend a Catholic elementary school. 
  • The graduation rate from a Catholic high school is 95%, 96% go on to college.
  • The Chicago Archduchesses is trying to raise $350 million to fund school scholarships and provide discounts.
  • 92% of 8th graders attending a Catholic schools obtain scholarships or discounts. Up to 95% of Catholic high school students receive the same.

Sister Mary Paul views it as a right and the responsibility of parents to educate their children.  The Chicago Archdioceses receives nothing in monetary gain from its Catholic schools, believing it is the right thing to do as children represent the face of God. Advanced by Sister Mary Paul is the inherent dignity of each child, along with her conviction that money should follow the child.   

Unfortunately Catholic schools aren’t able to open their classroom to every special education students who might wish to attend, because of the high cost factor involved in teaching these special needs students.  Nevertheless, Sister Mary Paul does want Catholic schools to convey the following:  “You are welcome.  This is your home, and we will teach you the best we know how.”  Algebra is taught in the 7th grade. Further recognized is that unless a child learns to read by the 3rd grade, that child’s future will be negatively impacted. 

Although former Congressman Joe Walsh was listed as Keynote speaker on the notice sent out to advance Heartland’s school choice event, Walsh was not announced in this manner by Representative Morrison, nor was it necessary to do so.  In actuality, Joe Walsh, former Congressman and current radio personality on AM 560 The Answer, needed no special introduction as he took his place behind the podium.  Elected in 2010, Joe Walsh is known for refusing his congressional health benefits and pensions, sleeping in his office, limiting himself to no more than three terms in office, and holding more town hall meetings than any member of Congress. 

It was surprising when Walsh related how he had worked for the Heartland Institute at its first location in Arlington Heights 22 years ago, before Heartland moved to Chicago, and now Heartland is back in Arlington Heights with its recent move.  Walsh reflected, with his usual show of passion and enthusiasm, how Blacks and Latinos support school choice, yet they don’t have it.  While Democrats are firmly planted with the teacher unions, Walsh is displeased over the failure of Republicans to grab the mantle of school choice for their own.

Walsh spoke of a disruption going on in American today.  Education is likewise being disrupted. Americans fully realize there is something very wrong and amiss happening in this nation.  If Walsh were king for a day, first and foremost, he would allow every parent in the nation to decide where their children would attend school.  This one change, reflected Walsh, would foster the most positive change for good in this nation.  Joe Walsh sees school choice all about politics, for the debate has been won.  It is now a political fight to get what is right for students, which involves empowering parents, not the system.

Walsh further mused: It’s so easy to jump on our politicians, and we should blame our politicians, but what about ourselves?   Many people aren’t sufficiently educated to understand that freedom is better than a government who tries to take care of us. Its therefore makes sense for parents to decide where their children will attend school? Teacher unions are afraid of only one thing, as commonly stated by members:  “We cannot let these kids escape.” 

School choice was depicted by Walsh as the civil rights issue of our time.  It is all about where children go to school.  Sixty to eighty percent of Backs and Latino want this freedom, but teacher unions and Black leadership say NO.  Walsh believes that the only way school choice will happen is if Blacks and Latinos demand this freedom. Consider how voucher programs had their start in both Milwaukee and Cleveland. It was through Black advocates fighting for choice.  

It’s an oxymoron that the Democrat Party is owned by the teacher’s union, yet Blacks vote Democrat in large numbers despite desiring better schools for their children. Republicans have been given an opportunity to get out of their think tank to advance school choice in areas that are home to many Black and Hispanic voters.  

Thirty years ago Bill Bennett posed this questioned when serving in the Reagan administration as Education Secretary:  “Why is it that when you make a bad burger you go out of business, but nothing happens if the education system is bad. This same point was made by Bill Bennett to Joe Walsh at a recent meeting. Both agreed that the Republican Party must use language that can be easily understand, if the status quo of the educational cartel is to be dismantled.

Gaining in popularity is homeschooling as a school choice option.  Over the past 35 years, Michael McHugh has worked as a home school program administrator, lecturer, and textbook author/editor for the Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights.  He has written numerous articles about home education for newsletters and scholarly journals across the United States and abroad.  McHugh lives in the Chicago with his wife and seven children and has been actively engaged in home schooling since 1988. 

To Mr. McHugh school choice represents freedom, the ultimate expression of liberty. Mass government control of education is lousy education and does not consider the needs of children or family. 

Home schooling, however, is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a big commitment and takes lots of hard work. You also get out of it what you put into it.  As McHugh described his own home school experience: The home schooling journey was well worth it, although not an easy one to pursue. But there is a substantial pay day, for home schools frees the minds and souls of children from brainwashing and social experimentation.  

McHugh emphasized the importance of personalizing home school curriculum.  Why?  Because each child is created with a unique set of skills and must be prepared for a mission in life for which he/she is best suited.  Material must therefore be selected that best cultivates the individual potential of each child, brought home when Mr. McHugh compared children to arrows.  Initially made by hand, no two arrows were alike.  Parents can personally direct instruction to the individual needs of each child on a daily basis, not possible to do in a classroom situation. For who knows children the best but their parents, who have nurtured them from infancy through maturity?  

The learning style of each child must be considered  Shared by Michael McHugh were the following:

1.  Hands on:  Learning by doing stuff such as tasting, feeling, and touching.

2.  Visual stimulation:  Learning by seeing and observing.

3.  Listening or auditory learning: Learning by having things explained.

4.  Multi-sensory learning: All of the above work equally as well. 

Mr. McHugh suggests initially trying a curriculum that uses different learning experiences and then selecting the one that works best. Also to be considered:  What do you want the curriculum to do for your family?  What are your strengths?  

McHugh recommends reaching out to tutors, such as retired teachers and fellow church members.  Administrating a standard achievement test is helpful to determine how your child is measuring up.  Most helpful is attending home school conventions to see and compare what is available in home schooling curriculum. This site was shared as an excellent one to help design your own home school curriculum.  Because there is a maze of excellent curriculum, the problem now lies in sorting through those offered to find the right one.   

 Michael McHugh believes that a curriculum promoting values is as important as what it presents education-wise, for “only a virtuous people can remain a free people.” 

A very lively and engaged Q&A with all the panelists:  to view:  https://youtu.be/6DJzBywtovU?t=1h15m43s

The session had a sprinkling of “friendly” clashing of thoughts, as the four speakers answered questions directed to them by attendees who wrote their questions on cards available on each table.  Noted below are some interesting responses by the panelists.

Although there are many fine teachers and they do try, Bruno Behrend believes there is no silver bullet to solve every problem; however, it is important that money follows the child. 

Sister Margaret called for the need to have SGO (Choice Scholarships) here in Illinois, where the state provides funding to qualifying students that can be used to offset tuition costs at participating schools. Students qualify based on student eligibility criteria and household income.  Sister Margaret was in disagreement with Bruno Behrend on the value of traditional brick and mortar school in the 21st century.

To advance the cause of school choice, Joe Walsh suggested that a political coalition be formed with minority parents and Republican legislators to confront the existing political battle against school choice.

In winning the hearts and minds of so-called soccer moms, Bruno spoke of the need to persuade soccer moms that choice is not a threat.  Instead, choice is good for society.  Don’t suburban public school parents already have a choice with Catholic or private schools?

Suggestions to advance school choice included:

  • Become a precinct committeeman.
  • If possible, run for office.
  • Visit your district office, letting your legislator know about the need for additional school choice here in IL.  Visiting your local legislator’s office might be more productive than visiting Springfield when conducting one-on-one discussions about sponsoring school choice legislation.

Ask lawmakers who don’t want vouchers where they send their own children to school.  Also inquire if they benefited from a school other than a public school as a child. 

JIm Lakely, Communications Director at Heartland, opened the program with remarks about the Heartland Institute, relating its purpose and presenting a brief summary of Heartland’s outreach to legislators throughout the U.S.

[Originally published at Illinois Review]