Now that the D.C. school-choice bill has been passed by the House of Representatives, in no small part due to the dedication and leadership of Reps. Tom Davis, John Boehner, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, attention turns to the Senate. Despite strong backing from within the D.C. community, opponents of this provision still want to lock the District’s poorest children into a school system that all too often robs them of a future. I find their opposition perplexing — and troubling.
This important issue — choice — really boils down to two questions. One, will it help our schools?; and two, is it the right thing to do? The answer to both questions is an overwhelming “yes.”
If we want schools to change, to become more productive, to become more efficient and more effective, then we must promote and nurture school creativity and innovation. By shielding schools from market forces, we are preserving a status quo, which on the whole is mediocre at best. We need to do something radical to shake up the system.
The academic discipline of organizational effectiveness makes clear that creativity and innovation increase productivity and efficiency in organizations — this is as true of schools as it is of other organizations.
There is significant research about what can be done to advance improvement. After studying thousands of innovations in processes and products, James M. Utterback of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded, “Market forces appear to be the primary influence on innovation.” Utterback noted that 60 to 70 percent of important innovations have been in response to market forces.
We also know from opportunity-scholarship programs that have been instituted in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida that school choice helps on two levels. First, it raises student achievement for those children who are fortunate enough to leave the poorly performing public schools. But, another interesting thing has happened in those cities: The competition has raised the performance of the public schools as well. I am heartened by the fact that some of the strongest advocates for school choice in Milwaukee are members of the public-school board itself.
We want schools to improve. School improvement requires change. Positive change requires creativity and innovation. Market forces power creativity and innovation. School choice will drive this process.
There’s also the matter of social justice. A child should not have his educational circumstances limited by his parent’s income, the color of his skin, or the dialect of his speech. It’s just not fair to use the power of government to chain a child to a school that is not serving her well. Disadvantaged parents should have the same right to make choices for their children as other parents have. Why deny a disadvantaged parent the single best way for their children to advance themselves — a great education? School should be the best way for low-income people to gain upward mobility and self-enrichment.
Former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools Howard Fuller aptly asks why people do not want low-income parents to have choice. Could it be that opponents of school choice somehow believe that some people need to be protected from themselves — that they are incapable of making the right decisions? However, in a blatant double standard, many of these same opponents of school choice for others exercise choice for their own children. Interestingly, almost one half of members of Congress with school-age children made a decision to send their own children to private schools.
Without choice, caring parents who don’t believe their children are being well served by their school have only one option: try to fix the school themselves by pushing the principal as they try to adjust the school to fit their needs. While parental involvement in their child’s education is of utmost importance, imagine how disruptive it is when hundreds of such parents, each with children of different needs and with different problems, bang on the principal’s office door. I know from my experience as superintendent in Houston that this is a prescription for continuous upheaval in the school.
The solution to this problem is simple. Allow parents the opportunity to choose a different school, one that is best for their children. In the District of Columbia, it’s the right thing to do, and it will benefit all of the District’s children.
— Rod Paige is United States Secretary of Education.