October 31, 2007

Parents Taking Power Back

Utah voters go to the polls next week to vote on a controversial school-choice measure, opposed by most of the education lobby but supported by many voters in the state. The program would use means testing to grant vouchers for children to use in private schools rather than public schools, and the industry's leaders see their monopoly slipping away. John Stossel argues that parents can do better with the money than the public schools have done so far:

What a great idea. Finally, parents will have choices that wealthy parents have always had. The resulting competition would create better private schools and even improve the government schools.

But wait. Arrayed against the vouchers are the usual opponents. They call themselves Utahns for Public Schools. They include, predictably, the Utah Education Association (the teachers union), Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Employees Union, Utah School Superintendents Association, the elementary and secondary school principals associations, and the PTA. No to vouchers! they protest. Trust us. We know what's best for your kids.

They say they're all for improving education but not by introducing choice. "When it comes to providing every Utah child with a quality education, we believe, as do most Americans, that our greatest hope for success is investing in research-proven reforms. These include the things parents and teachers know will make a difference in the classroom, such as smaller class sizes and investment in teacher development programs. Focusing on this type of reform will bring far greater success than diverting tax dollars to an alternative education system."

Please. I've heard that song for years. Government schools in America fail while spending on average more than $11,000 per student. Utah spends $7,500. Think what an innovative education entrepreneur would do with so much money. It's more than $150,000 per classroom!

The answer to mediocre public schooling isn't to give a government monopoly more "teacher development programs." The answer is competition.

Competition is one part of why these programs will eventually overtake the government monopoly on education policy. It will force public schools into accountability in some manner, as they compete for children and funding. The reduction of enrollees will hit their budgets hard, and they will be forced into improving their offerings to convince parents to keep their children in their schools.

What Stossel misses is why voucher programs have become a burgeoning movement, along with home schooling and the demand for charter schools. It springs from the loss of power from parents and the local communities to the federal government over the last four decades. The shift of control over curricula, standards, and mandates from local school boards to a vast federal bureaucracy -- abetted by the NEA -- has provoked this reaction. Parents want as much influence over the education of their children as possible, and federal control gives them no influence or say over how their children are taught. Power has shifted into the hands of the lobbyists, like the NEA, who represent teachers and administrators first, and children secondarily if at all, as I noted two years ago.

Vouchers simply provide parents with the power always envisioned by the public school system. It simply replaces the school board with a capitalist lever on quality of delivery. It requires more from the parents in terms of involvement, but at least in this system, their involvement actually gets rewarded. Right now, schools have so many mandates and top-down requirements that parents have little say any more -- and when they do attempt to make changes, get treated with dismissive attitudes from the "experts" who assume they know the children better than the parents.

The NEA and the Department of Education drove parents to voucher programs. Utah will likely be the first to pass the program, but in ten years, expect to see it spreading like wildfire. One way or another, parents will take back control over the education of their children, and dinosaurs like the NEA will either adapt or die.

UPDATE: Speaking of which -- how about yoga as a requirement for public schools?


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