We Need School Choice Now

by Jeb Bush
The best solution to our nation’s failing educational system is empowering parents.

Consumer choice created the most innovative and powerful economy in the world. Choice makes computers cheaper, images sharper, cars safer, and services faster.

Choice rewards success and weeds out stagnation, inefficiency, and failure.

This is why school choice is critical to the education-reform movement, and why National School Choice Week, which began this Sunday, January 26, is more than just a proclamation. It is a call to action for one of our most cherished principles.

How is it that parents have a say over every aspect of their children’s lives, yet often must delegate the critical decision of where they go to school to political boards and government bureaucracies? This has created an education monopoly that spurns accountability, views innovation as a threat, and prioritizes the job security of employees over the learning of children.

The result is hardly surprising: America has become a global leader in education spending and a global laggard in academic achievement. Last year we learned that Vietnamese 15-year-olds outperformed American teenagers in math and science on the Program for International Student Assessment.

That is not a wake-up call. It is a five-alarm fire.

The Ma Bell model of public education has failed.

Parents want better options. That is why more than 6,000 charter schools are serving about 2.3 million students. More than a half-million children are on waiting lists. In our urban centers, there is a glut of space in schools that parents don’t want and a dire shortage of space in schools they do want.

And there’s a reason for that. The children who benefit most from choice are disadvantaged students who are losing out in traditional public schools.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, after studying charter schools in 27 states, concluded the following last year: “Students in poverty, black students, and those who are English language learners (ELL) gain significantly more days of learning each year in both reading and math compared to their traditional public school peers.”

In New York, charter students racked up an additional month of learning gains in reading and five months of learning gains in math compared with their peers at traditional public schools — in only one year. So whose interests is Mayor Bill de Blasio serving when he moves to restrict charters — bureaucracies and teachers’ unions, or children and families?

The same question applies to political leaders who block vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

In Florida, I worked with state lawmakers to create scholarships for low-income students and students with learning disabilities. Not only are they overwhelmingly popular with parents, but the competition has improved the performance of nearby public schools. This strategy, combined with strong school accountability, has made Florida a national leader in learning gains by both low-income and disabled students, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A study by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance tracked voucher students in New York City. It found that the overall college-enrollment rate for African-American students who obtained vouchers increased 24 percent compared with that of their peers in traditional public schools.

It’s time to accept that a parent’s seal of approval trumps the government’s seal of approval.

Choice is bringing long-overdue innovation into an antiquated education model, particularly with digital technology. There are blended-learning schools, which mix computer labs with traditional classroom time. There are virtual classes and full-time virtual schools that give all students, no matter their addresses, access to quality curriculum and teachers. Home educators have endless options in selecting high-quality online courses.

Students at the network of Cristo Rey high schools work one day a week in businesses and corporate offices, helping pay for their education while learning valuable job skills.

We must fundamentally rethink how we define public education, paying for results wherever they occur rather than paying a single provider regardless of results. The achievement of children should trump all other considerations. If we could use a voucher or tax-credit scholarship to send a child to Cristo Rey, where a much higher percent of graduates go to college than in traditional public schools, why would we not do that?

Unfortunately, teachers’ unions have deep pockets to litigate against choice options and to fund the political campaigns of those who would protect their monopolies. They would rather block competition than rise to meet it.

Shamefully, the U.S. Department of Justice joined in last year by trying to block Louisiana’s voucher plan. It has since backed off somewhat, but what it needs to do is butt out entirely, because Louisiana parents don’t need Washington’s help in choosing schools.

We have an education system in which the children most in need of a quality school are least likely to get one. To quote former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice: “If I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, we’ve got a real problem.”

And the only solution is empowering parents so their children can no longer be taken for granted.

— Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.