Politics & Policy

Anti-Choice Extremists!

That's NOW, when it comes to education.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) claims to champion “choice.” But when it comes to giving parents choice about where to send their children to school, NOW firmly opposes providing additional options.

Consider that even liberal stalwarts like Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barbara Mikulski (Md.) supported the Bush administration’s decision to loosen restrictions on creating single-sex public schools and classrooms. Not NOW. NOW reacted to this announcement by accusing the administration of trying to segregate schools. “Sex discrimination in the classroom or the workplace is shameful,” said NOW’s president, Kim Gandy. “Segregation was wrong in the past–and it’s wrong now.”

In fact, giving more options to both parents and schools has nothing to do with the evils of forced segregation. No parent would be compelled to send her child to a single-sex institution and no district would be required to create one. The president has simply proposed relaxing regulations that prevent public schools from offering these choices to parents. Equating this with immoral Jim Crow laws is an insult to everyone who suffered under them.

Initial research indicates that children in single-sex education prosper academically. This is, however, beside the point. Higher test scores and graduation rates are wonderful, but the principle at stake is who should decide what kind of education a child receives. Time and again, NOW has opposed policies that would give parents greater control and options for the education their children receive.

Of course, many parents already choose single-sex education for their children. Numerous boys-only and girls-only private schools are available to families willing and able to pay tuition after paying the taxes that support local public schools. Many parents of public-school students also are able to practice some school choice when they decide where to live. Since home prices are closely tied to the quality of the local school district, wealthy parents often pay a significant premium to gain entrance into a desirable school system.

Low-income families rarely have the luxury of shopping for homes based on schools. Instead they are stuck with the local public-school system, which–especially in urban areas–often leaves much to be desired.

Education reformers have long recognized that condemning low-income students to abysmal, often violent public schools was unfair to those students and bad for society. Money has been poured into these failing systems to try to improve education services, but to little avail. Inflation-adjusted education spending has nearly doubled since 1972, but test scores have stagnated. Washington D.C. encapsulates this story: In spite of spending well over ten thousand dollars per student, the second highest in the nation, its test scores are rock bottom.

Over the past decade, parent-centered education reforms have grown in popularity. Giving all parents greater ability to select a school allows them to consider their children’s particular educational needs and forces schools to compete for students. Instead of having a captive audience and little outside pressure to perform, schools facing competition must, like a business, consider how best to deliver a quality product. If they fail to do so, they lose customers.

Empirical analysis of existing school-choice programs–from charter schools and public-school choice to vouchers and tax credits–suggests that market forces work. Dozens of studies have determined that students who switch schools are better off, as are their peers who remain in public schools that face competition.

Unfortunately, NOW remains stubbornly hypocritical in the face of such facts. They work closely with private women’s colleges like Smith and Mount Holyoke that increase the ranks of NOW’s embittered gender warriors. And, to my knowledge, NOW has yet to call for the elimination of similar private options for K-12 students. But NOW fights choice for families with children locked into often-failing government-run K-12 schools.

John Edwards’s presidential bid was fueled by talk of the existence of “two Americas,” one for those with means and one for the rest. Unfortunately, this is an accurate description of our education system: Families with means have options in choosing their children’s schools; too often, low-income families don’t. Ensuring that all families have choice should be a bipartisan principle.

As NOW continues its opposition to expanding choice for public-school families, it should be careful in using the term “segregation.” Those public-school families being denied options may start using that term themselves.

Carrie Lukas is the director of policy for the Independent Women’s Forum.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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