Dems Warming to School Choice

The issue of scholarships for urban kids to attend non-public schools is coming to a head in the legislature. The Governor has made passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act a priority. That is no surprise. What may be surprising to some is how the debate on this topic has shifted within the Democratic Party.

It used to be that anything resembling a “voucher” was taboo among Democrats. But many have come to see school choice as a civil rights issue. If rich white kids can go to the school that best fits them, why can’t we provide the same opportunity to poor minority kids? The white kids that move tend to leave A- or B-grade public schools for A+ grade private schools. The minority kids are often stuck in schools that have a far worse rating.

I remember a big city mayor telling me that the biggest problem in his school system wasn’t money, it was work rules. Some teachers wouldn’t do anything that was outside the four corners of their contract. They often wouldn’t get around to writing college recommendations, wouldn’t give kids extra help beyond their contractual work hours, wouldn’t set foot in the school cafeteria, and sometimes didn’t do a very good job in the classroom.

The teachers union has been too rigid in dealing with any changes to public schools, such as contracts and expectations for teachers. Once you’ve lasted for three years, you have a job for life regardless of your performance. This approach adversely affects the image of the many teachers who are doing a great job in difficult circumstances. Despite these conditions, of which so many politicians are aware, if a legislator stood in the way of the union, they risked well-organized opposition in the next general election and maybe in the next primary election.

So now we have a situation where a number of these elected officials are exasperated with the union, see the current movement as a justified response to intransigence, see safety in numbers as support for school choice grows, and think that an end run around the union is a better way to fix schools than to deal with union leaders who are unwilling to consider substantive change.

Why wouldn’t everyone support the proposed scholarship program? Some say that there is no guarantee of better test scores from private or parochial schools. Others fear the cost of a new program. Some say that it is not fair to leave some children left behind in public schools that are among the state’s lowest performing. A few question its constitutionality. Each of these arguments is weak.

Scholarships do not raise the same constitutional questions as vouchers because the state does not make any appropriations, and therefore cannot favor particular religious schools.

Saying that it is not fair to leave some kids behind in a public school is a tacit acknowledgement of a serious problem there. If you saw ten people drowning in a lake and knew you could only rescue one or two, would you let them all drown in order to be fair to all victims? Let’s flip the logic in another direction. Democrats almost all favor affordable housing policies with lotteries that give some people a wonderful new home while leaving others behind. This is so even though the available funds might be better spent making far more existing homes more energy-efficient and lead-free. A housing lottery that leaves people behind is okay, but an education lottery somehow is not.

A housing lottery does nothing for those who do not win. But an education lottery might provide ancillary benefits for those who do not win. At the outset, class sizes would be somewhat smaller – allowing for more individual attention for those who remain. Second, if too many people started seeking an exit, job security concerns might spur teachers and administrators to take their performance up to the next level. That could mean benefits such as more one-on-one time outside of the classroom, a benefit that is routinely available in non-public schools.

Many private schools perform better at a lower cost per pupil. I was board chair of such a school. The teachers really invested in their students. They volunteered to help paint classrooms outside of school hours. They earned less on average than public school teachers, but were very willing to go the extra mile. They were also treated like professionals, and given much more latitude to teach a subject in the manner they thought best. The bottom line was high quality instruction, high teacher morale, and greater budgetary efficiency.

So what about test scores? Some say that kids in private or parochial schools have only marginally better test scores or no difference at all. I’ve not heard anybody say that kids are worse off in schools of their choice. Many critics of school choice focus on the differential between private and public school test scores. The goal should be that test scores go up for both; never mind the differentials. A better measure is future success. What we do know is that kids who are in private or parochial schools at an early age have succeeded at top college prep schools and at top universities. What is wrong with more of that?

The only reason to oppose the Opportunity Scholarship Act is opportunistic; that is to say fear of political reprisal. I’ve spoken to elected leaders who worry about the Democratic party’s relationship with the teachers union, the primary opponent of the plan. The union’s other two choices are the Republican party and the Tea Party. These officials ought to worry more about ten-year olds who will be eligible to vote in two more election cycles, and who might be annoyed at someone who denied them the best education they could have.

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