When Will School Choice Come to the ‘Land of the Free’?

Published August 4, 2008

While presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama was on his world tour, the world came to Newark, New Jersey and demonstrated how parental choice has become an engine of education reform around the globe.

For the first time in its 30-year existence, the International Standing Conference for the History of Education held its annual conference in the United States–in Newark, July 23-26, with the city and Rutgers University as co-sponsors.

It did not go without notice among the conferees that the school choice available through broad consensus in many nations still confronts stiff education-establishment resistance in the United States. Newark may have landed the conference partly because its mayor, Cory Booker (D), is a strong advocate of empowering families in this way.

“America, the land of freedom and choice, except when it comes to your schools,” The Star-Ledger of New Jersey quoted Prof. Sjaak Braster of Utrecht University in the Netherlands as quipping.

In Holland, one of the featured nations in a discussion of access and excellence, it has been a right of parents for almost 100 years to send their children to schools they choose, using a government grant. Two-thirds now choose private or religious schools. If schools fail, they can be de-funded.

While the conference was underway, the Associated Press distributed a dispatch, run by many U.S. papers, telling how Sweden had defied its own welfarist ways and allowed parents to choose between state-run and independent schools. The independents are government-funded but may make their own decisions on staffing, teaching methods, and buildings. They may not charge tuition.

Before the advent of choice in 1992, only 1.7 percent of Sweden’s high school students attended private schools. Now, 17 percent do. In another deviation from democratic socialism, Sweden allows managers of independent schools to turn a profit if they can deliver quality cost-effectively.

Sweden is not the most out-of-character fan of school choice. In 2003 the People’s Republic of China gave private schools equal standing with government schools and began assisting them with tax credits and loans in an attempt to boost their growth. As China Daily explained at the time:

“Although local governments have put a lot of cash into education, government-run schools can’t meet the needs of the public due to the large population of China.”

Choice is a force in many other lands. In Canada, the degree of school choice varies considerably among the provinces. Alberta, which has the most education freedom, also has the highest level of academic achievement, while spending the least per-pupil.

So what about using the bully pulpit of the U.S. presidency to help bring more parental choice to American K-12 schools? Will that be a high-profile issue this fall?

Until recently, education has not received much attention from the two major-party candidates. But that may have changed as of the mid-July NAACP convention in Cincinnati.

Speaking there July 16, the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, made choice a central focus of his education program, endorsing the Washington, DC school voucher program for low-income families, an alternative to monopolistic teacher certification, new approaches to charter school funding that would empower principals, and creation of new charter schools offering online instruction.

Sen. Obama, the expected Democratic nominee, put the onus on parents in his July 14 NAACP talk, stressing the need for them to provide their children more guidance. He criticized McCain for supporting vouchers.

While endorsing public charter schools, Obama has taken a harder line against vouchers since first telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board in February that he might favor them if research proved they helped students succeed.

Ultimately, it will be up to the voters to decide whether the U.S. has something to learn from the international community about choice in school reform–and, if so, which candidate is for true reform.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute of Chicago.