Thursday, January 24, 2008

Free Market School System - Where's the Catch?

I am a parent. My oldest will be starting 1st grade next fall. Our school district assigns students to schools based upon geographic boundaries. The public school our daughter is slated to attend has student proficiency scores below the state and national average in every category. Through our attempts to dialog with the school's principal and the experience of other parents we clearly understand the school does not value parental involvement and the teachers are not supported or empowered by their principal. When requesting a tour of the school we received the following response:

"Why would you want to do that?"
"We are weighing our child's school options for next year and would like to learn more about your school."
"Well...we have an open campus so you're welcome to come by and walk just can't go into any of the classes."
"But we would like to meet with the principal and see the class."
"You'll have to come after school when the students aren't here."

Nice. Any stranger can walk around the school without being questioned? I'm not allowed to get an appreciation of the school's dynamic when the students are there? Is anyone else worried?

Other schools in the district share similar student performance scores but have better leadership staff. In fact, our school district has the second highest teacher salaries in the state and is in the top ten most expensive costs per pupil. However, it ranks below average in student performance in all of its schools. Regardless, the other schools in the district are full for next year and a transfer is not an option.

Even though we have been paying for public schools for 7 years through property and sales taxes we are now weighing the private school options. Our favorite thus far is a private school that instructs students public speaking starting in kindergarten. Every student is taught Tae Kwon Do in PE. Beginning in second grade, all students learn to play the piano and guitar. I thought they were over-exagerrating, but when we entered the music classroom there were 20 keyboards available so every student has their own. There are two large computer labs and students are taught Web design, PowerPoint, databases, and spreadsheets. Every student takes Spanish and the school will soon be offering Mandarin. Security cameras line the hallways to keep an eye on the kids and ensure there are no unauthorized persons wandering the school. They emphasize reading like most public schools in our state, but they also strongly emphasize math and science allowing advanced students to progress at their own pace in all subjects. Their middle school students can participate in sports and the school has activities like any other traditional school. In addition, they have bible study and chapel - something we highly value.

What's the cost? About $5,000 per year per student directly out of our pockets. This is a lot of money when we have already (and continue to) pay for public schools through our tax bill. It is a lot of money even if we were not paying taxes. We now must decide if the superior education, caring environment, and additional opportunities are worth the cost.

Interestingly, the per pupil cost of a pitiful public education in our state was about $9,000 in 2003. (see Evergreen Freedom Foundation) I can get a fantastic education for my child for $5,000 per year or a mediocre education for a cost to the public of $9,000 per year. Does anyone else see a problem with this?

As you might imagine, I am an adamant supporter of school vouchers. You're probably already yelling, "SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!" to which I'll kindly remind you that there is no such phrase in our constitution. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to a 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the Milwaukee school voucher program which allowed students to attend any school, even those with religious affiliations (see verdict).

There are supporters and detractors of school voucher programs. For the most part, there is a lack of sufficient data to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of such programs. However, some states have found success in extending the concept of school choice to their public school systems (see article). The result is competition between schools to win over students and their parents in order to get funding. Schools try to innovate and improve because they are in constant competition with one another. We see this in the electronics industry where companies are constantly competing to develop the latest technology breakthrough - there always seems to be a new gadget.

Private schools already have to innovate. They are competing against lackadaisical, but "FREE," public schools. In other words, if I am going to spend $5,000 per year on a private school education for my child it has to be better than a "free" public school education. Imagine if public, private, and charter schools all competed for state funds. The competition would create intensive educational innovation. No longer would schools be compelled to teach students to pass a state exam - they would be finding ways to add value to their curriculum because failure to do so would result in parents choosing an alternative. Parents could recognize their child's own strengths and interests and send them to a school that performed well in those areas. Educational output per dollar would increase. Imagine what a private school could do with $9,000 per student! Imagine being proud to send your child to a public school!

Where's the catch? There is no catch - opposition is purely based upon a socialist notion that competition is bad. For some reason, there are people convinced that a system that works for no one is better than a system that works for everyone. Teacher's Unions oppose such programs because they errantly believe it would compromise teacher salaries and job security while the competition would actually improve job satisfaction, good teachers would be rewarded and recognized, and the innovators would have excellent job satisfaction. The only teachers that would have to worry about job security are the bad ones that can't be fired because they have tenure.

Call your representatives today and demand free market education in your state.

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