Archive for Saturday, July 20, 2002

Students and parents benefit from school choice

July 20, 2002

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A great deal is being made about something called "school choice" these days. Could you explain this concept and tell me whether or not you are in favor of it?

School choice is an idea whose time has come. It would give parents the right to decide whether to send their children to a public, private or religious institution, and even to select a specific school to which they would be sent.

I favor this idea for several reasons. First, giving parents a choice would improve the quality of education because it would force school personnel to compete for students. That would make them more responsive to parents. Competition always improves the performance of human beings, whether one is selling hamburgers or automobiles. It encourages people to serve more willingly, to operate more efficiently and to do a good job.

That is the heart of the free-enterprise system. It provides incentives to those who work hard and think creatively. Monopolies, by contrast, become unresponsive and stilted. We've seen that lethargy in the U.S. Postal Service, in the various departments of motor vehicles, in Amtrak and in the present educational system.

I believe test scores will rise and parents will be more satisfied when schools that do a great job are allowed to grow. Their budgets will expand and their teachers will be proud, while disorganized and unresponsive schools with poor teachers and half-hearted administrators will wither on the vine. That prospect of competition makes educators nervous but it makes many of us excited.

The second reason I favor school choice is related to the first: It would put power in the hands of parents. If Dad or Mom became dissatisfied with a particular school, he or she could take their child to a nearby school that better serves the child's needs. With that youngster would go the voucher and the money it represents.

As a bad school began to dwindle under this system, you can bet there would be a new motivation among administrators to listen to parents and accommodate their concerns. As it stands today, parents are virtually powerless unless they organize and storm a school board meeting. There has to be a better way to encourage cooperation between the home and professional educators.

The third benefit of school choice is that it would grant poor people the same options now held by the affluent.

Today, if an upper-class family is dissatisfied with the local public schools or if they prefer Christian education or a first-class prep school they have the resources to send their children where they wish. An underprivileged family has no such alternative. They are stuck with the school in their neighborhood, even if it is rife with violence and rebellion.

Recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that nearly half of our nation's adult population is functionally illiterate. The future looks even dimmer. It's forecast that three out of every five of our current school-age population will either drop out or "graduate" with an education below the seventh-grade level. Given that dismal track record, small wonder the movement to place accountability in the hands of the people to whom it belongs the staff, parents and students at each individual school is gaining ground.

Until we rediscover the time-tested axiom that families who care about, and are allowed to participate in, their children's education are the crucial contributing factor to classroom success, I'm convinced school choice is the wave of the future.

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