The optics were wonderful. The rhetoric was soaring. One of the themes of the final night of the RNC was improving the educational system in the United States. Who could be a better speaker than Jeb Bush? After all, education is and has been his signature issue. No one on the right or the left, republican or democrat questions the former governor's good intentions in this area. He even interspersed his speech with remarks from a high school teacher and a recent high school graduate praising the governor's approach to education. It was a highlight moment for this convention and helped to frame one of Mitt Romney's signature issues for the campaign. It's not a new issue, but it's rarely been packaged better. Here comes the solution.......of course.....it is school choice.....the provision of some type of voucher given to a parent to allow the parent to enroll their child in the public, private, or religious school of their choice. The solution to our problems in education. Equality without additional expense.
There is just one problem with the entire concept. It is inherently flawed. This is not a case being made by a member of a teacher's union. I was a school administrator for many years and a university professor at a non-unionized private university for the balance of my career. I have been a school board member who had to negotiate contracts with teacher's unions. I am a supporter of strict teacher accountability and am not a fan of tenure. So why is this position a fatally flawed approach to education? Let's look at "choice" logically.
There are many rules that affect public education that do not apply to private or religious education. The most obvious are that public schools have to follow federal, state, and local regulations because they are recipients of public moneys. Private and religious schools do not have to do this. I will talk to this issue later, since there is a much more compelling reason that real school choice is fatally flawed. Public schools are required to accept every student who appears at their doorstep who is a resident of their district and is of school age. There can be no issue that schools are overcrowded, or the budget has already been expended, or the student has demonstrable needs that will increase the cost of his or her education to unreasonable levels. Private and religious schools can turn any child away for any of those reasons.
Ultimately, this is no small obstacle. Currently, approximately 88% of all students in America attend public school programs. A combined 12% of school age children attend private or religious schools. Nationally, those private and religious schools are functioning at about 86% of capacity. That would mean if every private and religious school in the nation was to accept "choice" students to the point that they reach 100% capacity, only an additional 4% of the nation's public school students would be able to attend these private and religious schools, leaving 84% of all students in America continuing to attend public schools.
Who would be most likely to be accepted into these private and religious schools? If history is of any assistance in making that determination, it will be the students with the highest potential, those with the most well defined skill sets. Ultimately, this will further decimate the quality of public schools.
The problem becomes further exacerbated by the realization that a "choice" program that is offered to all children must be offered to those not only in the public schools but those who are already attending the private and religious schools. After all, this is the "choice" that parents have already made for their children. This would transfer to catastrophic financial losses for public education. An already troubled program would be decimated, without any opportunity to improve.
Continuing with the fatal flaw explanation, public schools must educate students with all types of disabilities, ranging from mild intellectual challenges to students demonstrating psychotic and anti-social behaviors. While many private and religious schools accept or have programs for students with challenges, there is no imperative for those schools to continue to educate these students. Expulsion from these schools places these students right back into the public school setting.
There is a final, critical point that must be made. School "choice" is frequently not choice at all. It is often a scheme to fund local religious schools who are having financial difficulties of their own. "Choice" vouchers are generally for a specified amount of money. That amount will generally cover the cost of an education in a religiously based school. It will rarely cover the cost of tuition at most private schools in this country, many of which have tuition and board rates that approach $30,000 a year. A six or seven thousand dollar voucher does not make the private school any more accessible for the student attending a failing inner city school than not having a voucher at all. It does, however, act as a significant supplement and cost control for the family that is already paying that tuition.
There are many issues in which our politicians try to sell us a proverbial "pig in a poke". School "choice" may be the most disingenuous of all the self serving schemes that our politicians have put out there. The concept sounds so good. Who could be against helping those poor children in failing schools? We can put a classic Ponzi scheme out there that people will buy into. The apple that dangles in front of the garden is too delectable to turn down.
We all agree that we have schools that are failing. Some types of "choice" may be part of the solution, but they probably include public charter options. We have to work together to find real solutions to the deterioration of our nation's inner city schools. We have to find methodologies that will bring this nation back from the brink of academic failure to the top of the world's education heap. We have to find those solutions together. No rhetoric, no optics. Just hard work.