Let Us Choose Good Schools

Published June 19, 2011

The basic principle of equal treatment by the law is not complicated. But while many current-day self-described civil rights activists agitate for “rights” of distinctly dubious provenance — universal health care, “affordable” housing, same-sex “marriage,” etc. — they ignore an obvious unequal treatment by government affecting the most vulnerable in our society: the lack of educational options for millions of poor and minority children.

In standard school districts, children are enrolled in a school based on their home address. Getting out of that school requires their family to move to another district, make enough money to send them to a private school or alternative public school (if allowed), or have enough free time and ability to homeschool them. Poor families are severely limited, if not hopeless, on all three counts.

There is a severe disconnect in this regard between self-styled civil rights advocates and the people they profess to champion.

The Wall Street Journal reported on June 4 that the NAACP, which purports to care for the interests of black Americans, joined the United Federation of Teachers in a lawsuit against New York City to keep 22 of its worst schools from closing.

One of these, the Academy for Collaborative Education in Harlem, had only 3 percent of students performing at grade level for English last year, and 9 percent in math. Another, Columbus High School in the Bronx, has a graduation rate of 40 percent, a good deal worse than the abysmal citywide average of 63 percent.

When thousands of black parents held a rally to protest the lawsuit that would keep their kids trapped in these atrocious schools, the NAACP responded with indifference. Lawsuit critics “can march and have rallies all day long,” said state NAACP President Hazel Dukes. “We will not respond.”

* * * * *

Similarly, a lawsuit in California is thwarting parents who used the state’s new Parent Trigger law to demand the failing McKinley Elementary in Compton be converted to a charter school. Their kids remain stuck in a school where they can’t learn.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education unanimously rejected the practice of public schools segregating children based on race. The Topeka NAACP recruited the 13 winning plaintiffs in the case that concluded “separate but equal” was not equal.

Today, poor families of all races are routinely slotted into separate, or minority-majority and failing, public schools, where they dwell in learning environments so unequal that 3 percent of students can test at grade level in English while teacher unions still insist their members deserve the jobs at which they’ve clearly failed. Instead, unions blame the children, their parents and every other possible scapegoat.

These children are not hopeless cases. Those given the chance to attend charter or private schools under voucher or scholarship programs do better than their equally qualified counterparts who apply but aren’t lucky enough to get chosen in the lotteries these programs use. And the fact that these programs must use lotteries — because so many parents want their children to have a chance at a better education — tells all you need to know about whether parents are to blame for burdening their children with low expectations.

* * * * *

Yes, public schools, administrators and teachers are not solely to blame for poor performance in urban and minority schools. They can work only with the students and cultures they are assigned. But the current structure of restriction and restraint — of government-mandated incompetence — is a disaster and must change. That means giving all parents and children the freedom to choose schools.

Public school funds should attach to each child, not a particular administrative structure. That would grant power to the powerless and force schools to compete for students by educating them successfully.

When public school quality varies so widely, equal access means not merely a chance to attend a local school, but that public funds follow the child to any accredited school a family may choose.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute. Contact her at [email protected].