Earlier this month, North Carolina unleashed its “Opportunity Scholarship” website accepting applications for the state’s new school voucher program. Three days after its opening, some 1,400 families had applied hoping they would be lucky enough to receive a school voucher. The popularity of this program highlights the growing uneasiness among many parents about what are too often failing public schools. The sheer volume of applicants also suggests how desperate families are for student-centered education reforms — and those on the left should stop stalling and get on board the school choice train.
The cry for increasing school choice is not confined to North Carolina. Across the nation over 500,000 students are currently on charter waiting lists attempting to escape their failing public school and get into better institutions. Back in 2011, a now famous African American woman by the name of Kelley Williams-Bolar was jailed for attempting to get her daughters out of a failing public school in Akron, Ohio. In a desperate attempt to enroll her daughters into a better school, Kelley falsified her address and sent them to an alternative school outside the city. Although Kelly’s actions were dishonest, her motive to give her children the best education possible was one that many parents across the country can relate to.
North Carolina is part of a growing movement among 13 states plus the District of Columbia that offers school voucher programs. Most of these state voucher programs target low-income families typically found in failing public schools.
The positives of school choice are self-evident. Increasing school choice empowers parents with the freedom to choose which school they want their children to attend. After all, every parent contributes funding for their local public school through taxes. Is it wrong to suggest that they ought to have some measure of control over how that money is spent to educate their children? The primary responsibility of educating America’s children rests with parents — not government bureaucrats or union officials. Whether it be through a public school, private school, charter school, virtual school, or homeschool, parents knows how to best educate their child. Why should a zip code determine, as it did in the case of Ms. Kelly, where children should attend school?
According to British educational specialist Sir Ken Robinson, our current education system is structured on the industrial revolution. Professor Robinson argues that the American public school system operates on a production line mentality modeled after industrial factory lines. Ringing bells dictate when students are permitted to move, students are separated into different facilities, classrooms function on separate subjects, children are educated by batches determined by age, and standardized tests determine their intelligence. This type of model fits quite well into an education system based on a top-down one-size-fits all government approach. But our children are unique and gifted in various subjects. And it is parents, not government, that understand the strengths and weaknesses of their children and how they best learn. School choice is a fair and simple way to shift control of education from the government back to parents, where it belongs.
Predictably, this student-centered focus does not sit well with teachers’ unions. The North Carolina Association of Educators is currently attempting to sue the State Education Assistance Authority in order to block the innovative school voucher program, and maintain their monopoly in the education sector.
The picture is equally bleak at the national level, where teachers’ unions, President Obama, and liberal ideologues like Senate Democrat Leader Harry Reid, have refused to move legislation that would expand parental choice in education. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has introduced legislation that would increase school voucher funding for low-income families, but the bill remains bottled up in a Senate committee.
If the Left is serious about helping low-income families get the best education possible, they should put the interests of children before the interests of labor unions and join educational leaders in advancing school choice.
School choice doesn’t have to remain a partisan issue. Freshman Democratic Senator Cory Booker has long championed student-centered education reform in New Jersey. It’s time for the rest of the Democratic majority in the Senate and President Obama to get on board the school choice train. The future of our children’s education depends on it.
Wesley Coopersmith is a Policy Analyst for Americans for Prosperity.