Key to Real Reform Is . . . Education

Published March 15, 2010

From the intellectual, economic, and moral perspectives, school choice is so superior to the overpriced and underperforming status quo that its failure at the ballot box should raise questions about why such a good idea has had so little political success.

After decades of research, education, and dedicated activism for school choice with very few legislative victories to show for it, the time may have arrived when genuine breakthroughs are finally about to occur.

School choice advocates have lost major referenda in three states: California in 1994 and 2000, Michigan in 2000, and Utah in 2007. Florida’s Supreme Court dramatically curtailed Florida’s programs a few years ago, and Ohio has whittled away its choice plans. The crown jewel of choice programs, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, is under constant political attack despite clear evidence of its effectiveness.

Even worse: The Obama administration colluded with Congress to shut down the popular District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program this year.

Many school reform advocates labor in the hope that sooner or later, the public will be fed up and there will be a breakthrough for choice. Somewhere. Someday.

How about today?

Fiscal Problems an Opportunity

Several political factors work in favor of school reformers.

The government-education complex–the interlocking political and financial interests that profit from the current system–has overreached in many states, and people are beginning to wake up.

Activists in New Jersey and Michigan are putting up billboards exposing education industry tactics. Independent filmmakers are producing movies such as The Cartel, which exposes how teacher unions block reforms to maintain control of education dollars.

And in Illinois, a recent poll commissioned for a business group showed 65 percent of respondents favored curtailing K-12 teacher tenure and disallowing strikes by public school staff.

The government-education complex has lobbied for legislation to pad payrolls, engaged in schemes to enrich its members, and promoted policies that prevent disadvantaged communities from gaining access to better educational services.

With virtually every state suffering from fiscal problems, there may never be a better time to point out the flaws that make the current system unsustainable. A properly crafted school reform plan can help balance state budgets.

Education About Education

Achieving meaningful and lasting education reform will require a pitched political battle, not a polite debate.

The facts are on the reformers’ side. They should concentrate on letting voters know that in most states, increasingly painful taxes are a direct result of growth in education bureaucracy, perks, and pension abuse. Similarly powerful is the knowledge that “local control” is mostly a myth.

Voters also need to know teachers and administrators are highly paid and education spending has outstripped inflation since 1965.

School reformers should concentrate on active tactics, implementing aggressive communication strategies that tell the truth about the current system. They also should develop and showcase workable alternatives that can be enacted universally, instead of half-measures that reform’s enemies can undermine and eliminate.

A successful experiment in Sweden is something people need to know about. Reforms enacted in the early 1990s reallocated money so it followed the child instead of bloating the bureaucracy. This led to improvements in test scores and the opening of hundreds of new schools across the nation.

Our message is simple and elegant: Fund children, not bureaucracies or systems.

Afflicting the Comfortable

Here is another truth, one that does not need to be discerned from a focus group: Comfortable people don’t change.

The citizenry is restless, and they are asking why their taxes have been rising for decades while education outcomes have been flat. Their money is being wasted on a system that resolutely resists change and is designed to sustain the status quo. We can provide the answer they are seeking.

In 1985, no one would have believed the Soviet Union would be gone in five years. Our opponents appear strong. But then so did the Soviet system.

A little glasnost regarding the U.S. education apparatus is just what we need. The more truth the public hears, the louder will be their call for change.

Bruno Behrend ([email protected]) is director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for School Reform.