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Time for a Choice, Not an Echo

A Commentary by Bill Wilson

Saturday, May 16, 2009

In what has become a daily deluge of policy shifts, high-level pronouncements, and mindless personality cult trifles, it is understandable how such a small thing gets overlooked. So, for those who missed it, the Associated Press reported on Monday that the Obama Administration plans on spending another king’s ransom to prod officials to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers, principals and facilities.

The Obama Administration claims it wants to end failing public schools. Their commitment is deep, $5 billion deep. All sorts of promises are being made and goals set. And, in the end, it will all be just another failed exercise in government hubris and waste.

Frustratingly, Obama’s call to close and then re-open persistently failing public schools is doomed to failure. Even the huge sums of federal spending he is offering local school officials as an incentive cannot make a real difference to the students trapped in a one-size-fits-all public school monopoly.

This well-intended proposal, like decades of state and federal “reforms” before it, ignores two basic truths. First, every child is different and has unique learning needs; and second, parental involvement is the strongest catalyst for student success.

Only when children enjoy access to a wide range of school types do they have the opportunity to be seated in a classroom that matches their unique learning strengths and challenges. For some this means single-gender, Montessori, or classical instruction; for others it may be a technical, vocational, math and science or arts-focused curriculum. Parents know a child’s needs best and empowering them to make such specific decisions requires a funding model where money follows the child. This means tax credits, scholarships, or vouchers. This means School Choice.

A choice-centered model of funding also serves to reward and encourage parental engagement. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and similar state-level assessment programs simply told low-income parents what they long suspected: local public schools persistently under-serve their children. Explaining just how bad these schools are –often through the use of vaguely worded and variable achievement or growth levels– is merely adding insult to injury for parents who lack the means to take action.

Federally mandated public transfer options have been little advertised, less used, and often mean busing students to another underperforming public school across town.

The Obama proposal is not substantively different from the policies crafted by George Bush or Bill Clinton before him. This latest proposal is rooted in the false belief that centralized planning in state and national capitols can produce a world class twenty-first century education system characterized by both soaring student achievement and diminishing inequality. The reality of student variability and power of parental engagement must be recognized by lawmakers.

Not only does School Choice offer the promise of rescuing individual children from persistently failing schools, it is unique in its ability–through that choice process– to bring about the systemic reforms that will impact all children, even those whose parents aren’t presently engaged.

Until School Choice becomes the norm, not merely an inspiring exception enjoyed by a privileged few, generation after generation of low-income students will be lost. The opportunity cost in terms of missed economic development and the actual cost in terms of remediation, social services and corrections will continue to soar. Billions of tax dollars will continue to flow into the pockets of well-connected consultants, experts, assessment companies and contractors who capitalize on the perpetuation of the problem.

If Mr. Obama wants people to believe he really wants to see meaningful change, if he is truly committed to seeing the public schools reform themselves then he should give all parents the same option he used when he placed his daughters in a private school. Either that or really show America he is being honest about his concern by putting his girls in one of the public schools about to be used as the latest experiment by the self-appointed education elite. That would be a news item that would not get ignored.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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