By: George Noga – December 1, 2014
In seven years of authoring this blog, I wrote about school choice only one other time – once in 300 posts. I have shied away from that subject despite (perhaps because of) having been deeply involved in the school choice movement for ten years from 1994 to 2003. I started the first school choice program in Florida, and only the fourth in the entire USA, in 1995. The program I began (now called Step up for Students) funded 68,000 scholarships this year with a budget of nearly $300 million. During much of that time I also served on the board of the leading national school choice organization, Children First America, which began school choice programs in 100 US cities. This subject is not a new one to me.
“Imagine many kids died because ambulances drove right past private hospitals and would take seriously injured kids only to a public hospital.”
It is not hyperbole or overstatement to assert school choice is the civil rights issue of our time. Actually, it is far more than that. Although people of color suffer most from the current educational paradigm, everyone is victimized. Imagine there was a terrible accident involving a school bus full of kids and there was a private hospital nearby ready, willing and able to provide high quality care. Now imagine the ambulances would not take the severely injured children to the nearby private hospital – insisting they could only be taken to a more distant public hospital that provided inferior care. Imagine some kids died as a result and imagine the ensuing public uproar. That is precisely what is happening in our schools; poor and middle class kids are dying educationally (and some literally) – yet there is little or no public outcry.
Never have I seen an issue so demagogued and so rife with downright lies and with those promulgating the lies knowing full well they are lies. In the following parts of this post, I address many of these canards.
- School choice takes money from public schools: Let’s stipulate there are one million students in a particular school district and spending is $12,000 per pupil; total spending therefore is $12 billion. If 20% are given vouchers for $6,000 (50%) and total spending remains the same, the per pupil spending on the remaining 800,000 kids in public school now is $13,500 – an increase of $1,500 per pupil. Yet educrats and teachers unions want you to believe public school funding has been cut when it actually increased $1,500 per student or 12.5%. If every student had a voucher we could slash spending on education by 30% to 40% and improve school quality to boot.
- Private schools are not accountable: This is the biggest lie of all. If a parent has a problem with a public school, it is nearly impossible to seek redress. Public schools are accountable only to stultified bureaucracies and unresponsive school boards and not to students or parents. Private schools are directly accountable to students and parents. A consumer armed with a free choice is the most potent force on earth – recall New Coke and Blackberry.
- We don’t spend enough on schools: Real (inflation-adjusted) spending has doubled or even tripled in recent decades while schools got much worse. The US spends more per pupil than nearly any other OECD country while test scores in math, science and reading are in the middle of the pack. Actual public school spending is much higher than reported because much of it is hidden, i.e. off the school budget in capital budgets, pension plans, health care, debt service and grants. Often, real spending is double that shown on the education budget. Washington D.C. in 2010 spent $30,000 per pupil and had the worst schools in America. Sidwell Friends, one of the most elite private schools in the USA and where the Obamas send their children, spends only slightly more. Moreover, there is no proven correlation between school spending and any measure of educational output.
- Teachers unions and educrats care about students: The educational blob is nothing more than a jobs program for adults. New York state (population 19 million) has more school administrators than all of Europe with a population of 700 million. The head of the teachers union once said he would begin to care about students once they started paying union dues. Out of over 100,000 teachers in California, an average of 2.2 are fired each year for poor performance. Union tenure and seniority rules are nothing but a union racket.
- Private schools skim the best students: Every study published shows this is false. Voucher students in private schools are indistinguishable from public school students in every demographic. There is absolutely no skimming of the best students. The popular movie, Waiting for Superman, depicts the cri de coeur from ordinary, anguished parents facing long odds to save their kid’s life by securing a voucher in a lottery.
- Teachers are underpaid: If this ever was true in the past, it has not been true for a long time. When accounting for hours worked and all benefits, teachers are overpaid by more than 50% per a study by the American Enterprise Institute. A typical teacher with a $50,000 salary will receive another $52,000 per year in benefits compared to $20,000 in benefits for a worker in private industry. Teachers have great pay, outstanding benefits, light work loads and ironclad job security despite graduating in the bottom two quintiles of their class.
- Vouchers favor the rich, resegregation, scare tactics: With all the facts against them, the education blob (educrats, unions, politicians) resort to scare tactics. They play the class warfare card by asserting vouchers favor the rich. News flash: the rich already have school choice by controlling where they live and via private schools. The blob then says the “rich” could add to the vouchers and send their kids to even better schools. Their argument is they don’t want to help poor kids just because some rich kids might possibly do even better. Race baiters play the race card claiming private or charter schools are more segregated – an argument shot down by the Supreme Court.
In addition to the above myths, many other significant facts favor school choice. Foremost among these is the matter of values. Public schools teach a vapid, secular, valueless orthodoxy. School choice permits parents to select schools that reinforce, rather than contradict, parental values. Another issue is child safety. Public schools require metal detectors and a perpetual police presence and for good reason. Public schools, particular those in inner cities, have become petri dishes for social dysfunction and breeding grounds for behavioral pathologies. The blob is holding the kids hostage.
“Inner city schools are petri dishes for social dysfunction and pathologies.”
The favorite story from my time in the school choice movement concerns Tommy. When he attended a failing public school, he continually feigned illness and did everything possible to avoid going to school. In utter desperation, his parents applied for a voucher from our organization for Tommy to attend a private school. After a few months at his new school, Tommy awoke one morning with a fever and obviously was ill. Nonetheless, Tommy insisted on attending school that morning. When his astonished mother asked him why, Tommy replied, “Because my teachers are counting on me.”
There are millions and millions more Tommies in America and we are killing them educationally just as surely as the ambulances that would not take dying kids to a private hospital. The ones we don’t kill, we doom to lives of dysfunction and desperation. Shame on educrats, teachers unions, politicians, NAACP and their enablers. And yes, shame on unionist public school teachers too, for they are part of the problem. All these people are standing in the schoolhouse door, just like Orval Faubus in 1957, blocking desperate children from leaving. School choice is the civil rights issue of our time!