Why Not Free the Schools, Too?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The approach of Independence Day affords us a time to marvel at the genius of what the Founding Fathers created for us in the new nation that grew out of the Declaration of Independence and ensuing events: a nation based not on allegiance to a ruler but on individual rights.

I could not help but reflect on that thought recently after I participated in a debate taped for the PBS show Firing Line on the subject "Should Children Have the Right to Attend the School of Their Choice?" The argument focused on whether children, particularly those in the worst performing schools, should receive tax-funded tuition vouchers that would allow their parents to send them to a private school if they wished.

The arguments against tax-funded vouchers were familiar: Harvard Professor Christopher Edley and former Clinton Counselor Bill Curry, both believers in more - not less - government involvement in everything, worried that vouchers would destroy the government schools financially, reduce racial and class diversity and leave government schools with all the problem kids. Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, maintained that using a tax-funded voucher at a church-affiliated school breached the wall of separation between church and state.

But all the opposition to vouchers for private schools coalesced in the fourth panelist for the opposition, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. Chase and the NEA, the nation's largest teachers' union, agree with all the arguments against vouchers because they oppose all private school choice, and are even suspicious of choice among public schools. They have a near-monopoly and they want to keep it that way.

And that's where I made the connection between the school debate and the Fourth of July. It is sobering to realize that a nation founded on the principle of individual rights has ended up with a school system that negates - consciously and purposely - the right of school choice for thousands, maybe millions, of low-income families and their children, and denies them equal opportunity. Families who can afford private schools or who can afford to move to another school district can exercise their right. But low-income families, often living where the government schools are the worst, are stuck.

The very joy of freedom itself is, of course, the first blessing of the right to choose freely. But there's more: that right is also responsible for many of the advances in living standards we enjoy today because it encourages competition among producers of goods and services to be selected by people who have the right of choice.

It is because of competition for the favor of the chooser that computers and software have become ever more advanced, even as their cost has decreased, and why word processors have almost replaced typewriters. We have a wider variety of foods available and a proliferation of takeout and delivery services because of competition. Competition, and the innovation that has resulted, is the reason we don't have to break in new shoes any more, and why our summer clothing is made of lighter fabric and our winter outerwear is warmer than it used to be.

Only a few years ago, Sears was on the ropes and IBM's future was in doubt. Both companies survived and became strong again by making radical changes designed to fend off or outdo the competition and attract and hold customers. Companies that haven't adapted have gone out of business.

Schools have a product - education - and they have consumers - the students (and their families). What government schools don't have is competition. And because of the government school monopoly, the consumer is told to take it or leave it. If Sears and IBM had operated the way the government schools do, we wouldn't have a Sears or IBM anymore.

Government schools could survive in a competitive environment. There's no doubt they would improve, because the pressures for improvement would be so great. The education establishment might not be so comfortable - and that's good, too.

As for the concern about separation of church and state, Americans have used the GI Bill to go to church-affiliated colleges and universities - even to seminaries. Why would it be any less constitutional for a 7-year-old to go to elementary school using a "GI Bill for Kids?"

The real issue is whether to allow individual freedom of school choice - which shouldn't even be an issue in a nation that celebrates individual rights.

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