If you haven't paid close attention to the school choice movement over the past 10 years, you might not realize how much it has changed. Due to lawsuits and other limitations, innovators have figured out that tuition scholarships, also known as education savings accounts, are more effective than vouchers for giving families a choice of schools. The difference is parents are given much broader control over how to use the money. Instead of just transferring the public school money that would have been spent on a child to a few select schools, parents can choose to spend it in many ways, including for school books, tutoring, or P.E. at a traditional school.
Arizona is the leading state in the country for school choice. But a court in Arizona ruled that directing vouchers to religious (parochial) schools is unconstitutional. Undaunted, proponents of school choice found a way around it by setting up ESAs, where parents direct the money instead of the state. Now other states around the country are scrambling to pass similar legislation.
Last weekend, I attended a school choice conference in Phoenix put on by the Franklin Center. It is one small group taking on powerful teachers unions through the spread of knowledge. The establishment uses fear mongering and false information to retain the status quo. The threat that schools will run out of funding? That's not accurate, The Goldwater Institute's Education Director Jonathan Butcher explained at the conference. The establishment waits for an event that sort of looks like funding might have been cut, then sends out an alarming message. In reality, money for education in Arizona has never been cut and now takes up an incredible 45 percent of the state's budget. Butcher contrasts it with the cost of Sears catalog products years ago versus today – unlike typical commodities, the cost of education has gone in the opposite direction and we now pay more for less.
The founders of two charter schools told the group they started the schools out of frustration from teaching in the traditional public schools. They did so at immense personal cost, because charter schools currently only receive about half the funding of traditional public schools. Tim Keller, managing attorney for the Phoenix chapter of the Institute for Justice, explained that because of the cost of education, the right to choose a school has been illusory for most parents. We toured Benchmark Preschool and Elementary School, and were amazed to see how advanced the charter school was. The children were incredibly well behaved - despite the fact that charter schools may not refuse any students - and engaged in innovative hands-on learning instead of textbooks, which are becoming obsolete due to computers.
The standard sixth-grade curriculum at Benchmark is Algebra, History, English, Art, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Latin. After two years of Latin, students can study Mandarin Chinese in seventh grade. Similarly, Basis charter schools are ranked the top in the country; two of the top five high schools in the country are Basis, which is impressive considering they accept anyone. Sadly, even though Benchmark is consistently rated A+, the teachers unions have such a stranglehold over funding that they will not allow it to receive equal funding.
Clint Bolick, Vice-President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and a longtime champion of the school choice movement, lamented the dismal state of the American educational system. As a result of years of monolithic control by antiquated teachers unions, the U.S. now only produces one quarter of the computer scientists necessary for the country. This comes as no surprise considering even if kids make it to college, they are pressured into choosing unproductive majors like women's studies. Since our immigration policies are tilted in favor of chain-related (familial) migration over skilled immigrants, this leads to the U.S. exporting jobs instead of importing computer scientists, a dilemma Clint covered in his latest book, Immigration Wars. The 47 percent Mitt Romney infamously referred to is just going to grow.
Clint predicted where education is going in the future. The big surprise? Due to the rise of online learning, one really gifted teacher will teach millions, with tutors and social interaction available for group problem solving. The teachers unions' concern with classroom size is becoming more outdated every day, as is the associated emphasis on increasingly extravagant physical facilities. Fortunately, Clint observed, change is happening as technology advances, and nothing - not even the teachers unions - can stop it.
Clint recommends abolishing school districts. They don't even follow the boundaries of cities, but instead are isolated bureaucracies unto themselves where parents have very little influence. They spend an incredible amount of money and deliver very little. Instead, there should be only state-level funding, where each school is effectively its own charter school. Run more like insurance companies, with economies of scale, each school could find savings the way charter schools do now - like choosing school lunches from local restaurants that offer the best bang for the buck instead of the scrawny lunches dictated by Michelle Obama.
This is an area where the left and right can find common ground. What will finally bring about real choice is when the left realizes that minorities are disproportionately hurt by lack of school choice. Right now, the wealthiest school districts are able to pass bonds and overrides to direct more money in the form of property taxes at their schools. Charter schools don't even get that option. This would level the playing field. Clint became interested in school choice due to starting out his career as a teacher in an inner city school. He says, "If every American had to spend a day in an inner city school, they would be radicalized like me."