Let Parents Decide How Best to Educate Their School-Age Children

Published April 1, 2008

With his State of the Union Address and proposed budget, President George W. Bush calls for taxpayer dollars to underwrite the education of low-income students stuck in failing schools. With his “Pell Grants for K-12,” Bush would model his plan after the highly successful program that has helped thousands of students go to college.

Those students can use the federal support to attend the college of their choice. Bush would make the same opportunity available for low-income students to attend grades K-12 at the school of their choice–public, private, or parochial.

Given the animus that so animates any discussion of “vouchers” in education, there is not much of a chance the president’s proposal will come to pass, especially in a Congress controlled by Democrats. Indeed, Bush’s signature education policy, No Child Left Behind, seems to be in some trouble. Moreover, reaction to Bush’s “Pell Grants for K-12,” in Washington and in other places, like Richmond, has been swift and predictable–following patterns long associated with the school choice debate.

And that’s a shame, for it is an idea that merits serious deliberation rather than the sort of political demagoguery that is usually embraced by those opposed to more options and choices for families in failing schools.

Tired Old Arguments

As the debate goes forward, look for school choice opponents to trot out the same tired arguments. They’ll say government money should not go to non-public schools and that we should “fully fund” public education rather than divert funds from public schools.

Point No. 1: There is no such thing as government money. This is all about the peoples’ money going back to the people to help pay for the education of their children.

Point No. 2: What does it really mean to “fully fund” education? Has anyone ever heard a school board member, school superintendent, or state or local education leader anywhere ever say anything close to “Please, we don’t need any more money.” For those in charge of the education establishment there will never be enough money; education will never be fully funded.

Point No. 3: Under Bush’s proposal, the money doesn’t go to schools–it goes to families to educate their children. But even if it did, should we really care what school a child attends? What matters is the quality of the education a child receives, not the building where he receives it.

The opponents will argue that public education is how America educates Americans; the American people own the system, that’s why it’s called public education, after all.

But the way the system actually functions suggests it is hardly the peoples’ system. Public education tells parents and taxpayers, “this is your child’s school, this is when he goes to school, this is who teaches him, and this is what he is taught.” Today in America, we don’t own the system–the system owns us.

Long History of Choice

School choice presents the possibility of an entirely different dynamic driving the discussion. Imagine a scenario in which parents look at a number of schools and say, “This is my child, these are my hopes and dreams and expectations for her. Why should I entrust my child and my money to you?”

And by the way, this is a scenario that has played out for generations in higher education because of the G.I. Bill.

The opponents of school choice will warn that it will result in either widespread abandonment of public schools or the better students leaving with the more difficult-to-educate kids left behind–compounding the challenge of public education.

The truth is otherwise. Where school choice does exist there has not been a mass exodus. Indeed, the movement of some families from public to non-public schools has had the effect of improving education for children in both public and non-public schools.

Weak Defense

But consider their argument on its own terms. The apologists for the current system would offer as a defense against school choice that their schools are so bad that families would flee if given the chance–so they shouldn’t be given that chance.

For them, keeping kids in failing schools is more important than getting kids an education. For them, it’s about the schools–and jobs for those in the education establishment–not the kids.

The opponents of school choice have prevailed in most places because they have the obvious advantages of a monopoly that most Americans are familiar with even as they grow less than satisfied with it. School choice remains more theory than reality, something held up as an alternative to a stagnant status quo. But it does offer the idea that competition and freedom, two very American ideals, might be harnessed to create a new approach to education in America.

And few can debate how badly a new approach is needed.

Eugene Hickok served as undersecretary of education and deputy secretary of education in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2004. He previously was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education. This guest editorial originally appeared in the February 17 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.