Friday, March 20, 2015

Free to Choose

Education: Why Aren’t We Free to Choose?
Education isn’t a left vs. right issue. It’s a choice vs. no-choice issue.
Yes, Milton Friedman was for school choice. But so was Elizabeth Warren; her 2003 book “The Two-Income Trap” advocated school vouchers. She pointed out that to get into a good public school required middle-class parents to get into debt to buy suburban houses, helping drive the housing bubble. Paying for all students to go to private schools is a lot cheaper than having everyone live in $800,000 suburban McMansions.
Does paying for good schools sound too expensive? Last school year, New Hampshire taxpayers spent over $16,000 per child in public schools. It’s right there on the NH Department of Education website: “The per pupil amount of all expenditures - operating, tuition, transportation, equipment, construction, interest and non-K-12 expenditures is $16,269.59.” This year, of course, the expenditure will be higher.
The US pays more for schools than any nation except Switzerland. But we aren’t paying for good schools. NPR’s Anya Kamenetz has just published “The Test”, about how US schools are failing to convey basic skills. The US math and reading scores are lower than those of most developed nations. Even worse, by forcing every child into the same rote test treadmill, we are destroying their ability to function in the high-tech, creativity-driven 21st century.
There are bright spots. Oklahoma allows parents to choose from fifteen different online schools. They can choose an all-online program, or they can enhance their local school curriculum with one or more of 800 different online courses. The online option adds a lot of options for students, lets them prepare for college work (and get AP credit), and costs the state…half what they pay for brick and mortar schools. Several other states have large-scale online programs.
No, online schools aren’t the complete solution for every family. But if a child is being bullied, or is a bad fit with the local school for some other reason, online education can get them back on track. Almost any student could benefit from some online courses… it isn’t possible for any school to offer every possible specialty.
But it’s not about technology. It’s about choice. If education money was going to parents, then every child in New Hampshire could have an individualized education. With over $16,000 per year, they could go to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, or Shanghai to learn Mandarin. They could learn dance, or martial arts, or painting. They could start their own web businesses, or go to private school… and have money left over for college. Or they could stay home, apply themselves on the Internet, and learn anything from Ruby on Rails programming to literature.
Public school is the most class-stratifying force in US society. Children that are forced into bad or mediocre public schools for 13 years of their lives may never catch up. They may never regain their self-motivation and drive. Yet there is no reason why all children couldn’t use the money we spend on them to go to good schools.
We can choose choice for everyone. Let every parent choose the education for their child. Some children do well with Montessori methods, some with more structured learning. Some may do best with self-directed immersion learning. As Kate Baker of New Hampshire’s NEO scholarship organization ( points out, students learn well under many systems… if they want to.
Or, we can continue to restrict choice only to the few. Today some children (e.g. President Obama’s children, and Governor Hassan’s children when they were school age, and the 44% of Philadelphia public school teachers’ children that go to private schools) have benefited from school choice. Other children, through no fault of their own, get compulsory attendance at one-size-fits-all public school desks.
The NH Department of Education is fighting choice in the Croydon case. They have our tax money paying for their lawyers, in their case against four children that dared to choose. It is time for us to demand that our tax money be used to give parents and students more choices, not fewer.
Shouldn’t everyone be free to choose?

Bill Walker

"Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life, because they're not tempted to think about any other role." - William T. Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1889

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