Give Choice a Chance

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

K-12 Education

Put simply, access to education must be available to every child, whatever the parents’ background, and beyond universality, we must insist on quality. The least common denominator in education is not satisfactory. Every child must be able to achieve to his or her utmost potential, so quality must be an integral part of broadly available opportunity. Simple and sensible, yes, but if these objectives were realized, it would be revolutionary.

A huge range of quality exists in our system: compare precollegiate with higher education; compare the quality of education offered in different parts of our country; and compare it in areas of varying levels of income per capita. Too many precollegiate schools, probably one-half to two-thirds, are failing to educate students adequately, by any reasonable standard.

We must remedy this situation, not simply in the interests of the children but to ensure the healthy operation of our society. We live in a new age, variously characterized, but probably aptly described as the knowledge age. In such an age, say economists, a high rate of return to education would be likely to show even higher returns. In contrast, those without an education or with a low-quality education are unable to take advantage of opportunities and to cope adequately with the new environment of the knowledge age.

The evidence is piling up: choice and competition produce superior results.

That new environment creates all sorts of challenges to the process of education itself. Children learn all day long and not only in the classroom. They have access through their nimble fingers to computer and television screens that contain an astonishing and escalating array of ideas and information. At the same time, within the school environment and what is traditionally called homework, new means are needed to stimulate and broaden the process of learning.

Recent years, then, have seen this culmination of forces: the recognition of the failures in our schools, the transcendent importance of correcting the problems, and the new opportunities for learning presented by the new technologies.

Free to Choose

Three decades ago, in their classic Capitalism and Freedom, Milton and Rose Friedman wrote compellingly about the desirability of giving all parents, not just wealthy ones, a choice in where their children go to school and about the virtues of introducing a competitive marketplace to the process of education. These days, this idea of choice—in a halting manner, to be sure—seems to be taking hold.

Suppose you have the task of designing a system of precollegiate education for the United States and you can start with a clean slate. What would you propose? Where would you start? You know the new technologies can make a difference in what children need from the school and what can be obtained elsewhere. You know that there is a wide scope for the use of these technologies in the schools. But however impressed you are with the new technologies, you would certainly begin with a few of the following observations.

• Parents, by and large, care about their children and have a shrewd sense of what is good for them. Advice from professionals can help, but experts often disagree. When they do agree, the advice tends to be trendy, and trends change. Who is to choose among the various offerings? Let the parents do the choosing! Of course, some may argue that not all parents care and that some children have effectively been abandoned by their parents. Even in those tragic cases, however, the effort by most parents to choose can have a positive impact on the quality of the schools and thereby benefit all children in the schools.

Would you like to see the competitive spirit that has worked so well in so many aspects of our lives applied to education as well? Try vouchers.

• Parents know that certain basic skills are essential to reasonable life prospects. Comfortable use of the English language, written and spoken, is primary. A second language is certainly desirable (especially Spanish, because it is so widely used in our country). But the key is English, starting as early in life as possible. Certainly English should be the language spoken in the schools.

In California in 1998, an initiative to ban bilingual education in the state’s public schools passed overwhelmingly, receiving 61 percent of the vote. This initiative was opposed by the teachers unions and the educational establishment, but positive results are already pouring in. Children learn rapidly, and their ability to master English comes quickly and is tremendously beneficial to them. In this case, parents who expressed themselves at the voting booth turned out to have a greater sense of what’s good for their children than the educational establishment.

• Also essential is the language of numbers and the ability to use numbers. Beyond sheer arithmetic are the abstractions of mathematics, essential in themselves but also a prime way to develop a child’s power to reason.

A Question of Values

So the language of reading and writing and the language of figuring and reasoning are essential. There’s nothing new, nothing revolutionary, in this idea, enshrined as it is in the mythology of "readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic." Beyond these skills and their use, education should include values and priorities. In this regard, let me use an example from sports.

Everyone must learn the importance of accountability. Many people spend their lives trying to avoid accountability, but life is much more satisfying if you learn how to step up to it. In golf, the process is relentless. There you are on the putting green with a putter in your hand. After receiving whatever advice you’re entitled to, you are the one who has to decide on the speed and the break. You are the one who hits the ball. When the ball stops rolling, the result is unambiguous—the ball is in the cup or it is not: relentless accountability—a great lesson for life.

The Power of Competition

To return to our clean slate, we know that competition works in field after field. Its effects are to lower costs, increase quality, and provide consumers with choices as diverse as their various tastes. This principle should apply to the process of education.

Choice isn’t about the children of wealthy parents. It’s about poor kids, because wealthy children already have a choice.

A great experiment in competition and choice took place in our country immediately following World War II. Here came the vets, I among them, who had the benefits of the GI Bill. We could go anywhere and have tuition paid while receiving a small stipend to help with living expenses. We were the choosers. A multitude of serious young people with high aspirations precipitously entered the system of higher education. They were in college to learn, not to play around. The result was electric and long lasting; it was, in fact, a revolution. Today, we have the world’s best system of higher education, a system characterized by great diversity. Publicly supported schools still predominate in terms of numbers of students attending, and the quality of these schools has been raised by the competitive process. Why shouldn’t this process work just as well in the K–12 arena?

We see the problem when we move from our clean slate to the real world. We encounter huge institutional rigidities that are firmly in place and that possess formidable political capability. Change, we know, is always difficult, but persistence is essential to a revolution that will eventually follow the weight of evidence. And evidence is piling up that choice and competition produce superior results for students in their precollegiate years, which is why parents who can afford to do so often move to areas where there are good public schools; why parochial schools flourish in areas with low income per capita; why a wide variety of private schools have emerged to compete with one another as well as with the public school system; and why people who live in low-income areas are increasingly drawn to the possibilities of enhancing their children’s opportunities through choice.

Having an educational opportunity that is in considerable part publicly funded is a matter of right. But it should also be a matter of right that you, the taxpayer and the citizen, have control over where you spend that money because you, the parent, care about your child.

Consider these facts: One in four children enrolled in a private K–12 school in this country comes from a household with an income of less than $35,000 a year. Another 20 percent come from households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year. More than half the children in parochial schools come from households with an income of less than $35,000 a year, and one in ten comes from a household with less than $15,000 a year. The parents of all these children have to put up some money to send their children to these schools. Certainly there are scholarships, but parents still need to pay a portion of the tuition—and they pay in after-tax dollars.

Give Choice a Chance

In the Children’s Scholarship Fund—an effort initiated by two creative philanthropists, Teddy Forstmann and John Walton—private scholarships go only to children from low-income households. Applicants must put up $1,000 to supplement this private scholarship. The fund has been inundated with over a million applications—from households with low incomes that are going to have to put up $1,000!

In the end, what matters most is this simple maxim: the child comes first. Use what works and throw out what fails.

Why? The answer is clear: caring and observant parents can see what is taking place. People who have the resources to do so live in areas where there are good schools, good in part because there is heavy parental involvement in them. These parents have the financial capacity to exercise a choice and they do so. If they don’t like the public school, they have the capacity to pay double—that is, to pay their taxes for a public school and then pay again to send their children to a private school—and many do just that.

People in low-income areas are beginning to realize, more and more, that a system of choice is not about children of wealthy parents; it’s about poor kids, because the wealthy children already have a choice. Poor families want to be able to exercise a choice too. They think that they, as parents, can make a better choice than the people operating the public education monopoly.

Let me take you finally to a different subject: Social Security. Our Social Security system was designed under the guidance of Franklin Roosevelt, a shrewd politician. A lot of thought went into the way the system was set up. Roosevelt saw clearly that, in order to work over a long period of time, Social Security could not be looked upon in any way as a welfare system. In order to work, Social Security payments had to be a matter of right. He encouraged the notion that if you pay into something, you will get something out. Money is deducted from your paycheck and your benefits are calculated somewhat in relation to your level of payments. The payments are a matter of right. It’s not a matter of whether you’re poor or not; it’s a matter of right.

I think that education needs to be considered in the same way—that having an educational opportunity that is in considerable part publicly funded, in this case from taxes levied at the state and community level, is a matter of right. But it should also be a matter of right that you, the taxpayer and the citizen, have control over where you spend that money because you, the parent, care about your child and you want to guide that child to the place of learning that will be most beneficial.

Experimentation and experience are rapidly producing increasing evidence of what works and what does not work. In the end, what matters most to young people and to our society is this simple maxim: the child comes first. Use what works and throw out what fails the child. This simple maxim presents a compelling measure of the need for change, for to follow it would amount to a revolution!