It's A Gray Area: Let parents make best school choices

One simple question should resolve the "school choice" issue for most thoughtful people: "Who is in a better position to decide how and where children can best be educated: their parents or the government?"

The answer should be transparent, so why not actually allow parents to make those important decisions?

Recently there were headlines that the Los Angeles Unified School District has (finally) agreed to measure a school's success at raising its students' performance. But if parents could choose the school that their children could attend, no other rating system would be required.

Simply stated, if parents felt that their child's school was not doing as effective a job as another school within their area, they would move their child to the better performing school.

Then, systemically, if many parents withdrew their children from a particular school, soon one of two things would happen: That school would either begin to compete by improving its services, or go out of service, or be sold to others who would do a better job. This is what happens routinely in the private sector as a result of competition, and it consistently produces good results.

Thus we would not only have better schools for college preparation, but also for almost any trade imaginable, because flexibility and innovation are the hallmarks of a competitive system. Not every child wants to or should become a Ph.D., or even go to college at all.

Many will be hugely happy and productive as computer programmers, airplane mechanics, beauticians, performers in the arts, or in countless other trades. And if there is a demand for students to learn those trades and skills, schools will be created to teach them.

So how could such a program work? The government would send a payment slip to the parents for each child that could be "spent" for that child's tuition at a school chosen by the parents, as long as the school satisfied some basic criteria set forth by the government. Whether the payment slip is called a voucher, scholarship, tax credit, educational savings account or something else, it would allow parents at all economic levels to enroll their children at the school that would best fit their needs.

Today such programs exist in various forms in the states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and that list is expanding. California should join them. And along the way these programs also re-insert equity and fairness back into the system, so that parents who want good schools are not forced to pay both for the failing government schools and also tuition at a private school.

Of course, no system is perfect, and there might be some parents who would not care enough to seek out the best school for their child. But when they saw other parents in the neighborhood moving their children to better-performing schools, the odds are good that they would follow along.

In this discussion it is critically important to realize that our schools do not suffer from a lack of funding.

During the last 40 years, spending per student throughout our country has literally tripled in real dollars. In 1970, the government spent $50,000 (in 2009 dollars) to educate one student for the 13 years from kindergarten through high school, and in 2009 it spent $149,000 for those same 13 years.

Only Switzerland spends more money per child than we do in educating our children. But you don't need me to tell you where we rank in education around the world, and the results are continuing to get worse.

So we have an institutional problem, or as Joe Klein, the former chancellor of New York City's Department of Education put it, "We have a 19th Century classroom model in the 21st Century."

Furthermore, the only real remedy that is being discussed is requiring teachers to focus upon a high-stakes end-of-the-year test. But even this test is not working, and never will, because it really does not measure learning. Only parents really can do that, and we should let them.

Frequently the question arises, would a school-choice system allow parents to "spend" their vouchers at religious schools? The answer is, yes.

Would this be a violation of the separation of church and state? Not any more than the G.I. Bill's college program by which veterans have for decades been able to choose to "spend" their V.A. eligibility at Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Southern Methodist University or any other religious school that they wish. School choice for K-12 grades would present the same situation, because it is the parents' choice where the money would be spent, not the government's.

So who is against this new and innovative system?

Poorly performing teachers and schools, as well as large numbers of non-teaching bureaucrats, and many of them (naturally) want to protect their vested interests. Currently they feel threatened enough by the prospect of change, that they are placing advertisements on the radio about how we must spend even more money on education, because "it's for the kids."

But it's really not for the kids — it's for the bureaucrats. As responsible and caring people and voters, it is time that we see this approach for what it is: More funding for a system that has been failing our children for years.

So help us move into the 21st century and bring back quality, innovation and excellence into our schools by re-inserting incentives and entrepreneurship.

As consumers, we decide what kind of automobiles and clothing to purchase and use from a wide variety of choices furnished by market incentives, and we will be able to obtain a good education for our children by employing the same system of incentives in our schools.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or through his website at http://www.JudgeJimGray.com.

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