Urban Leaders Themselves Are Demanding More Choice

If the defenders of the current system are correct in their criticism that choice will hurt the urban poor, we should see urban leaders resisting choice strongly. In fact, just the opposite is the case. In Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other cities across the country, urban leaders and parents are at the forefront of demands for choice.

In an essay supporting a modified voucher plan for Cleveland’s public schools, Hugh Calkins, a member of the Cleveland School Board from 1965 to 1969, examines the claim that choice will "skim the cream." Calkins addresses the concern that students who do not take advantage of choice options and remain in their home school may sustain losses that equal and perhaps exceed the gains that those who leave the system may achieve.

I respond that it is intolerable to deny better education to inner city children with the gumption to seek it, in order to help others who are less determined to escape the ghetto. Moreover, the gains and losses are closely related to the degree of involvement that parents have in their children’s education, and providing real choices is the best tool we have to increase the number of involved parents and the intensity of their involvement.34

Mr. Calkins’s comments underscore the danger of focusing primarily on individuals who choose not to make a choice about their schools. It may well be true that those students will, for a time, exist in a school that does not meet their educational needs. But many students in public schools find themselves in this situation right now. The very existence of expanded choice options will bring about changes in the educational environments in the students’ home districts. In Michigan, as charter schools have attracted increasing numbers of students, the traditional public schools have doubled their efforts to "win back" departing students. 35

Mr. Calkins’s words also serve as a reminder that parents should be the primary caretakers of their children’s education, rather than allowing the state to assume that role. Parents deserve the freedom to seek a better education for their children if they think the current system is failing to provide one. Any objection to allowing parents the right to send their children to a better school, because doing so somehow undermines a "system," is significantly flawed. Parents would not accept such an argument with a child seeking medical care: ("But Johnny can’t go to a better doctor; what would happen to the staffing levels at our government-assigned clinic?") People would not accept it for choosing where to live: ("No, I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith, you and your husband cannot move out of town; we need your residency in order to keep up our revenue sharing.") Similarly, it cannot be accepted with respect to education.

In Detroit, local ministers have come together to demand choices in education that extend outside the government school system. A large group of urban leaders, including the former superintendent of the Detroit School District, Deborah McGriff, have traveled to Cleveland and Milwaukee to personally review their choice programs. In both cities, pilot programs offer vouchers to parents of school-age children, which can be used at private schools. The ministers emerged impressed and vowed to support choice programs for their citizens in Detroit. Reverend Edgar L. Vann, President of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, stated that there is no reason why every school—public and private—"should not be a part of the mix of positive choices available to parents." The Reverend Ned Adams, Jr., pastor of True Faith Baptist Church and a member of the Baptist Council’s education committee, believes that without a choice among private schools, there is no incentive to drive school reform.36 Rabbi E.B. "Bunny" Freedman, former executive director of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield, noted that "Parents who send their children to private schools are not getting a fair shake, because they are effectively paying twice for the education of their children." He favors vouchers or tuition tax credits for parents.37

Public opinion supports the ministers’ efforts. A February 1997 poll by the Lansing firm of EPIC/MRA for TEACH Michigan, an organization which supports school choice, found that Michigan residents support state-funded scholarships for poor children to attend any school of their choice.38 The survey of 600 Michigan voters found that 54 percent favored such a plan.39 In Detroit, full choice was favored by an even greater 60 percent.

Any objection to allowing parents the right to send their children to a better school, because doing so somehow undermines a "system," is significantly flawed.

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