Public education, its plight, and what to do about it have been at or near the top of every list of public policy priorities at least since the 1983 publication of “A Nation At Risk”.
Since then, the private sector (businesses, chambers of commerce, philanthropists, foundations, etc.), to their great credit, have shown a remarkable inclination to get directly involved with schools and school governance at every level in the K-12 spectrum with a dizzying array of intervention and accountability measures. These same spheres of influence have also had a significant role in legislative initiatives directed at the “reform” of public education, resulting in a number of innovative structural changes, the charter and contract school movements being prominent examples. All of this effort has been productive in large measure and is certainly to be commended; however, it is not enough. In order to bridge the last chasm in school reform and reach all deserving children with quality education, fully competitive school choice will be necessary.
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 structural changes. This debate is about children and their lives and the future of our society, not about a system.
This does not mean we should abandon the public schools. To the contrary, public schools are the foundation of American democracy. In fact, the introduction of the dynamics of competition in the form of empowerment of parents, particularly low-income parents trapped in underperforming schools, to seek the best education for their children will be the salvation of American public education. It’s the civil rights movement of the 21st century.