Getting There From Here

There is no serious policy dispute that school choice improves outcomes along a number of dimensions—student achievement, graduation rates, parental satisfaction, discipline etc., etc.—so now the only question is how it can be achieved politically.  The Wall Street Journal recently published an excellent piece on the topic; read it after the jump.

The flattened borders of the 21st century have made networking faster, global trade freer and competition more rigorous — meaning the premium we place on educating future generations is higher than ever before. Yet the nation’s monopolistic approach to education remains a millstone around our children’s necks, with America consistently lagging behind its industrialized peers in academic achievement.

The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman understood the central role school choice must play in revitalizing American education. “Empowering parents would generate a competitive education market, which would lead to a burst of innovation and improvement, as competition has done in so many other areas,” he said in December 2005. “There’s nothing that would do so much to ensure a skilled and educated work force.”

By any objective measure, Friedman was right. The success of school choice as a method of empowering parents, raising student achievement and improving public education systems in those markets where it has been implemented is indisputable. The question now becomes how to achieve meaningful school choice for the benefit of all parents, not just a select few?

After this year’s compelling school-choice victory in Utah, the methodology for successfully advancing parental options against the well-funded phalanxes of institutional opposition is crystallizing. Specifically, Utah’s success has proven the efficacy of advocating universal choice initiatives as opposed to limited, means-tested pilot programs.

Beyond the obvious quantitative benefits universal plans provide (i.e., more choices for a larger number of parents), consider the following lessons from experience:

 Scaling back choice plans does nothing to diminish institutional opposition. Too often, supporters of school choice assume that watering down legislation in their states will result in acquiescence from teachers unions and the education-industrial complex. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it is choice for one child or one million children, the education establishment will fight it tooth and nail. If anything, the rhetorical salvos launched against scaled-back proposals are even more incendiary, with bureaucratic apologists falsely accusing school choice supporters of “sneak attacks” and “end-arounds” in addition to the predictable “anti-public education” harangues.

Moreover, the introduction of “softer” choice bills is often perceived as a political retreat, emboldening opponents and unnecessarily muddying the clear policy and philosophical merits school choice enjoys. Anti-choice forces do not make distinctions nor will they ever stop attacking that freedom once it has been achieved. Even after Utah’s decisive school choice victory, supporters of the status quo are already seeking to derail the legislation by using the state’s public referendum process — all this despite the fact that Utah’s public schools received more than half a billion dollars in new funding this year.

 Broader choice plans equal broader support. You don’t have to take Grassroots 101 to know that successful coalitions are based on addition, not subtraction. Yet in many instances school choice supporters have been conditioned to believe that confining the parameters of parental choice will lead to a broader base of public support. The opposite is true. As employee stock options and personal savings accounts have shown, nothing motivates individuals quite like becoming personally invested in an issue.

Supporters of school choice cannot afford to leave a single ally on the sidelines — for Christian school parents, home school parents, parents with special-needs children or parents who for whatever reason aren’t satisfied with the public school they are zoned for, universal choice plans offer a much broader base of grassroots support than more narrowly-drawn proposals.

 Universal school choice plans can ultimately forge winnable political coalitions. Utah adopted the nation’s first universal school choice bill this year in spite of a staggering amount of political capital devoted to defeating the legislation and demonizing those who rallied behind it. House Speaker Greg Curtis, who was targeted for defeat by teachers unions last year and came close to losing his seat, is emblematic of courage under fire. Instead of being awed by the onslaught, Mr. Curtis pushed choice aggressively, and was a central figure in the school choice victory.

Like citizens, elected officials are much more inclined to support legislation when they are given a direct stake in it. All politicians respond to pressure in their own backyards, yet absent such pressure, they will invariably bend to the inflexible will of the education establishment.

In spite of enormous resistance, Utah’s victory is proof positive that a universal approach — consistently advanced over time and leveraging every available grassroots and political coalition — can succeed in securing the educational choices our nation needs to compete in the new millennium. The sooner we apply these lessons to other states, the sooner America can inherit its 21st century Manifest Destiny.

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