Parents should be Allowed to Choose Their Children's Schools

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Pundits everywhere have been tying themselves in knots as President Bush started his administration off without any major catastrophes. In fact, instead of allowing himself to get distracted by a minor controversy, he chose to spend his first week following through on his campaign promise to make education reform his first legislative proposal.

The effort so far has been a smashing success. Bush's focus on improving public schools through flexibility, high standards and accountability has garnered praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. Even leading Congressional liberals have had nice things to say about the man and the program. This won't last forever. Especially if Bush continues to push for the one element of his education program that has proven to be a lightning rod for debate: school choice.

Here's why he should. Mr. Bush says he wants an education system that is based on accountability. That's why he proposes setting high standards and testing to make certain the students and the schools are meeting those standards. Yet for there to be any real accountability for the schools that consistently fail - even in the face of increased flexibility and additional resources - parents must be empowered to say no -- you're not going to fail my child any longer. That means giving them a choice.

So bring on the debate. Opponents with a vested financial interest in the status quo, like the teachers unions, are already mobilizing for an all-out offensive on choice programs - from charter schools to universal vouchers.

Those needing intellectual ammunition to rebuff the demagoguery to come should read An Education Agenda: Let Parents Choose Their Children's School, a new book produced by the NCPA and Children First America. The book brings together over twenty of the nation's leading experts on school choice, to address its many aspects and provide a roadmap for reform. Put together, the book has a simple message -- school choice works. Where tried, it helps students and it improves the schools the students leave behind.

Take the claim that choice programs will be disastrous for the public schools the students leave. Not so, says Brother Bob Smith, principal of a Catholic school in inner-city Milwaukee - site of one of the nation's leading choice programs. He says competition generated by Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program forced public schools to offer a better product to attract students. In response to the loss of students, the public school system in Milwaukee has guaranteed that each child will be able to read by the end of third grade. If they can't, the school will provide one-on-one tutoring after school until they can. They also now offer early education programs, all-day kindergarten and increased flexibility for local schools.

The claim that schools will be drained of resources is also false, according to Robert Aguirre, who oversees the HORIZON project, a choice program in the Edgewood School District in San Antonio. Edgewood, according to Aguirre, lost 8.4 percent of their students when the HORIZON project started, but the funding per student left behind in the public school system actually increased by 5.7 percent.

What about the claim that choice programs will segregate our nation's schools, and that private schools will "cherry pick" or "cream" the best and the brightest away from public schools? Paul Peterson of Harvard University, one of the nation's leading researchers on the effects of school voucher programs, says students who take advantage of school vouchers "resemble a cross-section of public-school students." And Dan McGroarty, veteran of many choice battles, says choice programs in Milwaukee, San Antonio and Cleveland show "the face of a typical school choice student is more likely to be African-American or Hispanic, from a single-parent home, entering private schools as a below-average student with a history of behavioral problems."

Most public schools designated as failing will improve when given the flexibility to innovate, fire poor teachers and focus on education rather than administration. But it is not enough to threaten schools with a loss of federal funding if they do not improve. There has to be a day of reckoning for schools that are unable or unwilling to reform.

Ultimately, however, school choice is not about punishing schools or teachers. It is about ensuring that all children, even those from the humblest of backgrounds, have the opportunity to succeed. This is the real civil rights issue of our time. It's time to unchain the schoolhouse door.