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My Turn: Choice is what education needs most

For the Monitor
Published: 2/6/2017 12:10:07 AM

In her My Turn essay “School choice is dismantling America” (Monitor Forum, Jan. 26), Jane Hunt tries to connect economist Milton Friedman to anti-desegregation forces reacting to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.

She must have hoped that her audience hasn’t read Friedman’s work. He consistently advocated greater personal freedom for all people, in all things, over decades of academic writing. Friedman’s support for school choice was part of his belief in the efficacy of the free market, period.

It hasn’t been 1954 for a very long time. Segregation in public schools today isn’t a matter of racism; it’s the result of where people choose to live and a public school system that locks in students by ZIP code. Today’s school choice movement is entirely child-focused. It’s about breaking the tyranny of the ZIP code, giving parents options for where and how their children are educated, and helping them afford it.

Education is a public good deserving public finance, but the local public school isn’t always going to be the best fit. Even apparel makers have given up on “one-size-fits-all”; the current promise is “one-size-fits-most.”

Hunt describes American schooling as a “buffet” with many choices, but that’s true only for families with economic means, or very talented children, or luck. For most children, schooling is more like school lunch: a set menu, and generally unappetizing.

The anti-school-choice argument would have more force if it proposed requiring all children to attend their local public school. Why let rich kids opt out of a system supporters claim is a bedrock of America?

A terrific advocate for school choice is 10-year-old Kariah Butler. Her story is available on YouTube. It’s four minutes and worth your time.

Kariah’s mother was looking for a way out of their D.C. neighborhood’s public school, a school with a less than 50 percent graduation rate. Like many inner-city public schools, the D.C. system is infamous for violence, low test scores, high drop-out rates and exorbitant cost.

Kariah’s mother found hope in D.C.’s federal school voucher program, which polls show has the support of low-income minority parents in our nation’s capital.

Despite that support, and the fact that it boasts higher graduation rates and lower costs than D.C. public schools, President Obama bowed to union pressure and defunded it. Congressional Republicans saved the program.

Instead of focusing on students like Kariah and acknowledging the limits of the public system, Hunt tells us about “choice-schooled students,” kids she’s met who believe the “Earth is 6,000 years old” and the Second Amendment “keeps government from taking over.” Perhaps she’s met some of these curiously labeled students. But for each one of them, there are thousands of “government-schooled students” who will soon receive diplomas despite being functionally illiterate and innumerate.

It’s ironic that Hunt raises the specter of 1950s school segregation in her opposition to school choice. Studies have shown that few millennial public high school graduates understand the significance of “Separate education facilities are inherently unequal” or can explain the meaning of a theater’s “Colored Entrance” sign. That’s the reality for millions of children put through government school failure factories.

The cost of this failure is staggering. A recent Department of Education report found that since 2009, the School Improvement Grant program produced no measurable improvements to academic achievement despite spending $7 billion. America spends more per student than any other developed nation, yet our students fall further behind their competitors on international tests.

Public education has become a self-licking ice cream cone – an entity seemingly designed solely to serve itself.

Hunt’s essay is a study in condescension. She would deny choice for others as she imposes her choice upon us, claiming that we’d all be much happier that way. “We were happier with just one option” she writes. Setting aside whether our happiness is any of her concern, happiness often comes from making good choices as thinking adults. But for anti-choicers we are the benighted, needing to be saved from making decisions “our betters” deem inappropriate.

Anti-choicers cling to the idea that a little-changed 19th century school model is the way forward for all students in the 21st century. Ignoring advances in telecommunications that, for instance, give home-schoolers the ability to interact with students around the globe, they are willing to sacrifice another cohort of other people’s children to defend one particular system against the competition that choice would provide.

Could you look Kariah Butler in the eye and tell her she had to go back to her “assigned” public school?

(Ken Gorrell lives in Northfield.)


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