Give kids a chance with choice

April 24, 2002|By Cal Thomas

ARLINGTON, Va. - The Philadelphia public school system will transfer control of 42 of its failing schools to seven outside managers. This is believed to be the largest effort to improve an under-performing government school system.

The April 17 vote of a special panel appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, and Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, a Democrat, was close (3-2), but it was clear to the majority that drastic measures were long overdue. More than half of Philadelphia's nearly 200,000 middle and elementary school students score in the bottom quarter on state reading and math tests.

Evidence continues to accumulate that despite ever-escalating levels of spending, government-based education is not producing the kind of educated young people the nation needs.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, taxpayers are coughing up an average of nearly $7,000 per government school pupil per year. That's twice the average for private schools. In some urban government school districts, such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., it costs about $9,000 per pupil annually.

Many urban schools are so poorly managed that not only are many of the buildings in disrepair, but administrators plead for money to buy toilet paper. Large percentages of students must attend summer school because they have not achieved the minimal requirements for promotion or graduation.

The 300 largest inner-city school districts spend about the same amount of money per pupil as the average of all 15,000-plus districts in the country, yet they continue to fall short of expectations. Studies of inner-city Catholic schools show that students from low-income families learn more at less cost and in a far safer and more agreeable environment than in government schools.

President Bush was right during the 2000 campaign when he said education choice and vouchers improve how and what children learn. While he dropped school choice from his education bill to pacify anti-choice Democrats, the president should return to the subject in time for the fall congressional campaign. The evidence that choice works favors his position.

John C. Bowman, former vice president of the National Association of Professional Educators, responds in a lengthy essay to defenders of the government education monopoly (available at

Referring to the myth that education choice would "deprive" government schools of needed money, Mr. Bowman says that reducing the number of students would allow government schools to have smaller classes and become more efficient, thus cutting costs.

What about the argument that private schools will take only the best students, leaving government schools with those hard to teach? Not so, says Mr. Bowman.

"Many private schools specialize in educating children with learning or behavioral problems," he writes. "Many public schools lack the in-house resources to meet the needs of students they are legally obligated to serve."

In recent weeks, two prominent radio broadcasters have urged parents to withdraw their children from public schools and either teach them at home or place them in private schools, whether or not the government will allow vouchers. Dr. Laura Schlessinger and psychologist Dr. James Dobson (who once believed that such a move was "going too far") now say many government schools are beyond reform and need to be abandoned. They're right.

Only competition will improve education, and no parent or child should be forced for political reasons to remain in a system with so much failure and so little chance of reform. Philadelphia schools cannot be studied into proficiency, nor can they be improved by transferring control from one monopoly to another.

Only choice will work, as it does in virtually every other area of life, from package delivery to automobiles. Political considerations keep choice from becoming a reality. Consideration for children must come first.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave, Suite 1500, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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