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Time to Redefine Public Education

After decades of struggling to stifle any hope of giving children and their parents a chance to escape from failing schools, liberals are starting to fear their task is inevitably doomed to failure. The decision by the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this week to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s vouchers program that gives low- and middle-income families the right to use state money to attend private schools is a landmark in the long battle for school choice. While this is just one victory in a single state, combined with other developments elsewhere it may not only be the beginning of the erosion of the government education monopoly but a change in the way we define the term public education.

The Indiana case is significant not just because of its size (over 9,000 students took advantage of it this year) but because it challenges the notion that the only proper way for the state to educate children is via the public schools system. As even the New York Times noted in a front-page feature published yesterday, the growing number of efforts to offer families a choice that heretofore was only available to the wealthy is based on the idea that private and religious schools are just as valid a form of public education as those run by the state. More to the point, with so many public schools failing their students, the ideological resistance to vouchers is dooming large numbers of children, especially minorities in urban areas, to a future with no hope of a better life. While choice opponents still hold the upper hand in most states, what is happening in Indiana is bound to have an impact on the rest of the country.

While there have been other vouchers experiments, the Indiana program is the largest and most generous such program since it is the most broad-based such experiment. As the Indianapolis Star reports:

A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The key to understanding this concept is that it is not a gift from the state to private or parochial schools but merely a re-allocation of the funding that would ordinarily follow the student wherever he or she might go in the public system. In Indiana the purpose of the money devoted to education is now regarded as geared to the welfare of each individual child rather than to government institutions and their bureaucracies. Instead of the state deciding where all of the money should go, now poor and middle-class families are empowered to make decisions for their children.

The teachers’ unions and the rest of the state education establishment that oppose school choice tell us that this drains money from public schools and will hurt children. But the well-funded legal and political struggle they have been waging to squelch every attempt to provide choice is defending is their education monopoly, not the best interests of those interred in schools that don’t give kids a chance.

Far from destroying public schools, the availability of private and other options, such as charters, provide the system with the competition that is the only way to incentivize their improvement. Without that, the bureaucracy will continue to process kids more than educate them, as is the case in all too many places around the country where the families with the means to choose other options have fled the public system.

While charters are often highly successful, they remain under the purview of the public schools bureaucracy that has more to gain from their failure than success. That’s why any real education reform program must open up the gates for underprivileged kids to attend private and religious schools that are forced to succeed without the government backing that often means failure is not punished.

Choice opponents also claim there is no proof vouchers can succeed in improving achievement, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy since almost every previous experiment has been so limited and often cut off by liberal politicians before they had a chance to succeed.

An excellent example of this was seen in Washington D.C. where Congress established a limited school choice program that offered a small number of poor kids a chance to attend private schools that were previously restricted to the capital’s elite. But after Democrats took back control of both the White House and Congress in 2008, the experiment was ended. That meant that in the future the poor urban African-American kids no longer could hope to attend Sidwell Friends, the private school where President Obama sends his two daughters.

The hypocrisy of Obama and other limousine liberals who are prepared to condemn the children of the poor to attend disastrous public schools they would never dream of sending their children to is breathtaking. But it is exactly that attitude that is at the heart of this issue.

The question for Obama and his friends in the teachers’ unions is the same it has been for years. For all of the lip service such liberals pay to the welfare of the poor and the need for education to break the cycle of poverty, they refuse to take the one step that actually offers a path to a better life for these kids. They do so because they regard the sanctity of the public education monopoly to be a higher priority than the needs of ordinary Americans.

The question for them is the same that they are quick to pose to their opponents on other equal access issues. Are they prepared to acknowledge that the children of the poor are made in God’s image the same as their own? Are they really willing to sacrifice another generation of the poor on the altar of the failed god of public schools merely in order to prop up an education bureaucracy and unions that are their political allies?

More and more Americans are starting to realize that if the object of public education is to give children a chance, they must widen their horizons and start letting the flow of taxpayer dollars to the schools follow the kids rather than the bureaucrats and the unions. What happened this week in Indiana could be the moment when the tide began to turn in favor of education rather than liberal ideology.



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