Defenders of the educational status quo frequently ridicule school choice as both misguided and hopelessly ethereal. They consider the idea of allowing parents and students to choose among schools that compete for their money — with vouchers aiding the needy — a dangerous hallucination. Consider these comments catalogued by the Educational Intelligence Agency, a Sacramento-based research group on government schools and teachers’ unions.
”Competition — winners and losers — is okay for breakfast cereals, but disastrous for schools,” a National Education Association newsletter declared in September 1999.
“Where are the schools going to come from?” American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman quizzed journalist Matthew Miller that July.
“Vouchers are about fear of life,” California Teachers Association Executive Director Ralph J. Flynn said in June 1993. “They are a desperate effort of some of our fellow citizens to hold back the profound and scary changes which the 21st century has waiting for us. The private schools which vouchers seek to fund are really a kind of nuclear fallout shelter and just about as functional.”
But the universal school-choice model is not mounted atop an incoming Chinese ICBM. It already thrives here. American colleges and universities operate within the very framework school reformers envision. Choice, competition, accountability, and quality are routine beyond high school.
Look at the options in Los Angeles alone. Among government schools, community campuses like Santa Monica College will enroll any local high-school graduate for free. California State Northridge is more selective, while UCLA is a pricier, first-rate institution.
The University of Southern California, meanwhile, is a well-regarded private, secular school.
Among faith-based institutions, Loyola Marymount is Catholic, Pepperdine is affiliated with the Church of Christ, and Hebrew Union College is Jewish. Each accepts students outside its denomination.
Many at these schools pay their own bills while the government offers vouchers to some who cannot. Yes, vouchers. They are called Pell Grants and provide up to $3,300 annually in federal money to help each eligible, modest-income scholar finance tuition. Numerous state grants as well as federal and state loan programs also assist undergrads and graduate students in covering their schooling.
This situation exists across America. New York City features the Borough of Manhattan City College, New York University and Yeshiva University. The University of the District of Columbia is in Washington, D.C., as are George Washington University and the Catholic University of America.
As for accountability, the College Board, U.S. News and World Report, and other organizations publish evaluations that rate campuses on academic rigor, student performance, and even cocktails of choice.
As the AFT’s Sandra Feldman might wonder, where do these schools come from? Educational entrepreneurs build them in response to demand. The NEA’s then-president Keith Geiger conceded this when he praised America’s first voucher program.
“The G.I. Bill turned out to be one of the wisest investments the United States has ever made,” he told NEA members in 1995. “American colleges and universities would never again be the same. To accommodate the bright-eyed veterans, they had to grow faster than ivy.”
Collegiate choice is not exotic. It is the norm. Educational reformers simply want to replicate this model of variety, competition and accountability from America’s high-school quads down to its grammar-school sandboxes.
Somehow this straightforward message gets lost. School-choice advocates, with good hearts and sharp minds, sometimes hinder themselves by allowing teachers unionists and their comrades to frame the debate. Thus, school-choice discussions often lapse into confusing exchanges on baselines, longitudinal analyses, the “TIMS-Repeat” examination and related social-studies jargon. The result often resembles a doctoral defense at the U.C. Berkeley sociology department.
School reformers should keep it simple and explain that if school-choice foes are sincere, they should insist on the elimination of Pell Grants and require each post-secondary student to attend a government college near his parents’ home. This position would be objectionable albeit internally consistent.
Don’t count on it.
With Herculean energy, teachers’ unions and school-board bureaucrats combat the modernization of American instruction, despite the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s recent revelation that 60 percent of poor fourth graders and 63 percent of their black classmates cannot read. Such intellectually abused boys and girls require high quality, competitive schools, and the means to attend them.
Education reformers should demand that apologists for today’s ghastly system answer one simple question: If school choice works for America’s college kids, why is it no good for kindergartners?