When I served as Chairman of Texas Business Leaders for Educational Choice during the 1998-99 Texas legislative biennium, I began most of my speeches and debates across the state with the following opening:
“Let’s start with a basic premise about the school choice debate: No child should be left behind because of failure of the education distribution system to deliver the best possible opportunity. If we cannot deliver on this commitment, we are failing in our public education responsibility, and no historical attachment to a particular delivery system should prevent our making the necessary changes. We are talking about lives, about our future as a society. This debate is about children, not about a system. School choice is a public policy whose time has come.”
With the Supreme Court decision in the Cleveland school choice case, a huge “red herring” has been removed and we can now move to the next level of what I believe will be the civil rights revolution of the 21st century. Church-state considerations have never really been the critical issue with school choice opponents. Their opposition is all about power and protection of the perks of the status quo for the entrenched vested interests of the educational establishment. Now we can get on with the more substantive elements of the debate without the First Amendment smokescreen. What are these? Most prominently, the opposition has done a great job in shaping the debate into a focus on “draining” funds from the public schools. My response here is that, first, it is very difficult to make the case that public education is underfunded, but, more to the point, in an truly competitive system, the ultimate accountability is the power of the customer, parents and their children, to “vote with their feet” and have the funding follow the child. Remember that school choice already exists for those who are privileged to be able to afford a private school or a home in an affluent neighborhood with a high quality public school. The substantial majority of those left behind without such choices are relatively poor, inner city, and often minority children. We owe them the same opportunity.
The biggest hurdle in my school choice advocacy has been the reluctance among many to understand and accept the dynamics of competition and how, in a choice environment, these dynamics will produce a supply of quality education alternatives to meet the demand. So well entrenched is the static one-size-fits-all delivery system with its top-down mandates and accountability that we fear the dynamics of a deregulated market for education. Will there be failures? Sure, but there are numerous failures in the current delivery system that cannot begin to be rectified by the existing perverse incentives favoring compliance over performance. School choice in Texas can supplement the state’s top-down accountability system with a bottom-up accountability system, and the resulting competitive environment will drive improvement for all.
In Rod Paige’s final “State of the Schools” address as Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, he outlined a very bold strategy to have HISD become “the K-12 education system of choice for the citizens of Houston”. This is a commendable objective for Houston and Texas that can only be achieved if there is a truly competitive alternative to the present delivery system. Let’s give choice a chance.