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December 6, 2003
Another Argument for School Vouchers

I am not much of a fan of lawsuits. I tend to think that civil litigation has morphed into a version of Legal Lottery in too many cases, where people wildly exaggerate their damages in order to redistribute wealth, rather than recover reasonable damages. News stories about lawsuits raise my suspicion, for two reasons. First, I look at whether the alleged action actually caused damage and to what extent; second, why does a particular lawsuit get press coverage? In this case, the suit itself has some legal curiousity, but I suspect that the depth of reporting is intended to cast doubt on the idea of school vouchers. Otherwise, I'm not sure why this educational malpractice lawsuit, which has dubious odds of succeeding, would get so much attention from the Star Tribune:

But when one mom discovered a couple of years ago that her fifth-grade daughter at the school was doing math and reading at a third-grade level, she apparently thought the school wasn't doing its job.

Anna Bronson sued the school recently, claiming its "pedagogical negligence" was responsible for her daughter's inadequate progress. She is claiming breach of contract and seeking more than $33,000, saying she had to spend "considerable monies" on tutoring to bring her daughter up to grade level.

A good deal of the article details the "unconventional education" that the City of Lake Waldorf School provides, such as knitting, clowining, and fairy tales. Quite frankly, I think I'd find that a bit suspect. I don't know if I'd sue the school, however -- I'd be more likely to pull my child out and enroll her elsewhere if I felt the school was incompetent. If they were covering it up, then maybe. The amount in question seems reasonable for covering tuition paid and tutoring costs and other incidentals, like lost work time.

But the coverage bothers me. This should be an "Oddly Enough" story from Reuters, not 16 paragraphs in Saturday's edition. The Star Tribune has made no secret of its opposition to school vouchers, and I suspect that covering this story allows them to make the case later on that private school curricula are strange, unusual, and meet no reasonable standards.

However, this case proves the value of injecting competition into education. First, unusual though it may be, the City of Lakes Waldorf curriculum must have had some appeal to these parents. Second, the parents have the ultimate control; if the school isn't performing, take your child out and go elsewhere. How easy is it to do that in the public school system? A good friend recently found that out when he tried to transfer his son from one high school to another after becoming dissatisfied with the approach the administration took. He now has to send his son to a city over 30 miles away because the district wouldn't allow the transfer.

In this case, the parents are suing the private school, essentially for malpractice. Do you think that any such suit would survive, or could even be filed, against a public school?

But parents shelling out cash for a private education may have contract expectations, they said.

"When a parent sends a child to a private school, it does constitute a a contract," argues attorney Phil Villaume, who teaches education law at St. Thomas University.

So parents can only take positive action against a failing school is when the parents have a contractual relationship with the school. That relationship doesn't exist between parents and public schools, and that's the main reason why parents feel so powerless when dealing with the educational monopoly.

And of course, the obvious question: what do you suppose is the difference in the rate of educational malpractice between public schools and private schools? I suspect that we can read the test scores and make that determination quite easily.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 6, 2003 10:02 AM

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