Chapter 5 - The Time For Real Choice Has Arrived

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More and more Americans these days seem to understand that if there's one good way to finance and deliver education, it certainly isn't the way the govern­ment does it now. In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear that there may be many good ways to do it, all of which employ elements of choice, competition and the private sector.

Among the innovations worthy of note are those from two neighboring New England states, Vermont and New Hampshire. They are clearly doing something right, or at least less wrong than what's going on in almost every other state: both are spending close to the national per pupil average for education and both spend less than the national average for teacher salaries, while student performance in both states is consistently at or near the very top in the country.

There may well be a direct connection in these states between student performance and the degree to which education is run and paid for at the state level. In New Hampshire, 90 percent of education money comes from local government and only 6 percent comes from the state, compared to the national averages of 44 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

Some have objected to the New Hampshire system because it has produced the highest property taxes in the nation. However, citizens there shoulder the lowest burden of overall state and local taxation of any citizens in the country. New Hampshire, in fact, remains the one state which has neither a personal income tax nor a broad-based sales tax. (Its economy, not by coincidence, has been consistently robust, outperforming that of almost every state over the last two decades.)

In Vermont, 61 percent of education funding is derived locally and 34 percent comes from the state. That's practically the same as the average for Michigan, though our uniquely complicated education funding for­mula produces wide variations from district to district. The two New England states, however, have been considerably more innovative than Michigan when it comes to education.

Following the principle of "He who pays the piper calls the tune," less involvement by state government means more local control by the very people who are most involved with education in the first place. That means teachers, principals and parents. Less state involvement usually means less bureaucracy and politics, lower costs, more freedom for innovation, fewer schemes from professional "educrats" in state capitols to "homogenize" and mold young minds.

Greater emphasis on local control also fractures the power of teachers' unions, which is why their leadership has generally favored centralization. It's easier to get your way statewide by renting a few legislators than by bowling over large numbers of parents and local school boards. In this state, the Michigan Education Association – a teachers' union – is widely regarded as one of Lansing's most powerful lobbies.

Back in New Hampshire, the small town of Epsom is the home of a pathbreaking new experiment that is turning into what The New York Times labels "a national testing ground for plans that offer parents a choice as to where their offspring will go to school."

Enacted late in 1990, the Epsom plan grants a $1,000 property tax rebate to parents who send a child to any school, public or private, other than the local public high school. For every family that opts for the rebate arrangement, Epsom will save $3,600 off the $4,600 it now pays per pupil to Pembroke Academy, the public school. The plan's author, Jack Kelleher, argues that the program combats the drawbacks of "a government monopoly over schools" by fostering "choice and competition." "This is the only program I know of," he says, "where the more people participate, the more the government saves."

Something even more interesting – and extremely unusual – has been going on in Vermont for decades. It might properly be called the nation's oldest education voucher plan.

Nearly half of Vermont's 240 or so towns have no public high school and do not belong to any of the state's high school districts. School boards in these towns either designate a nearby public high school and pay the full tuition for any local student to attend it, or simply pay to any approved nonsectarian high school in the nation (that a local student chooses to attend) a tuition amount equal to the average Vermont public high school tuition – in effect, a voucher plan.

Most of the students over the years who have utilized the voucher option have chosen to go to nearby public or private schools in Vermont. But not a small number have gone out of state and one young Vermonter even used a voucher to enroll some years ago at a school in Ketchum, Idaho.

The lessons from New Hampshire and Vermont cry out for attention in Michigan, where the conventional wisdom is that what's needed is not just more money for education but a higher share of it coming from the state as well. Instead of the more money approach, what we should be concentrating on is a bold departure from the past – one that emphasizes local control, enhanced parental choice, and free enterprise.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Almost everywhere in our economy, free enterprise proves its superiority over government operation. If we could inject some of the virtues of free enterprise into schooling – even transforming public schools into privatized entities themselveswhere feasible – the benefits would be enormous.

Parents would be able to choose a school they believe would benefit their children's unique learning needs, instead of the "one size fits all" variety. Liberated from the bureaucracy that now smothers their initiative, stimulated by competition and challenged by the opportunity for personal rewards, teachers would take a more prominent role in improving the schools. Encouraging entrepreneurship in schooling would expand both the supply of schools and their diversity. Taxpayers would have greater assurance that their investment in education would show positive results and not simply declining performance and rising demands for more funding.

As earlier chapters in this book have made plain, the problem in public education today is not funding. It's not equity in funding. The problem has everything to do with the fact that we deliver education the same way we deliver the mail – by way of a bureaucratic monopoly. If we allow the "more money" or "equal funding" morass to stymie real reform and throw good money after bad, then we will fail the schools and we will fail the children. They both deserve better.

For real choice to be effective in improving the schools, we must welcome diversity. We must place at least as much faith in the market and the private sector as we have mistakenly placed in the public sector in the past. We must not be afraid to trust that the vast majority of parents, when empowered by choice, will seek out and demand the quality education they have too often been denied by the way we do things now. In short, we must agree to disagree about schools, with you having your school and I mine.

As measures are implemented to foster these changes, private schools are likely to grow and proliferate. For real choice to be effective, we must embrace such a development. Worse than the system we are plagued with now would be one in which government uses choice to expand its influence over private education. Government should, in fact, recognize its own failure and not seek to intrude even further into private schools. Indeed, simultaneous with any program to implement greater parental choice ought to be concrete steps to diminish the role of govern­ment in all aspects of private education except perhaps for health and safety. We've trusted bureaucracy and monopoly for too long. It's time to put our faith in the virtues that made America great in all areas where they have been tried: competition, private initiative, and, of course, consumer choice.

One way to accomplish this would be through a voucher plan, one that would include both public and private schools. It is not within the scope of this work to present a detailed prescription for implementing vouchers but rather to suggest that minds be opened to the idea and a public discussion begin. It is quite likely that at some point in the not-to-distant future, Michigan voters will be asked to consider serious voucher proposals.

Even Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, in another context, has said that though certain things may be government's responsibility, that doesn't always mean that government itself must provide them, so long as it puts mechanisms in place thatinsure somebody will.And if that somebody can actually provide those things better and more efficiently, then allowing that to happen is nothing short of wise stewardship of scarce resources.

One program the government has to assist the needy is the food stamp program – a kind of voucher plan. Whatever you may think of food stamps – and admittedly, there are problems – there would be a much worse way to get the job done, namely, to require that everybody get their groceries from government grocery stores or pay twice to patronize private ones. That would mean doing it the way we provide education – with all the attendant high costs and bureaucracy. As it is, the food stamp program gives poor people a "voucher" and they shop around among private enterprises for the best deals, preserving the elements of choice and competition to the benefit of all concerned.

Vouchers might be given to parents for their children's schooling, worth in dollars what the taxpayers are willing to spend per pupil. Parents would "spend" this money at the school(s) of their choice, public or private. Vouchers might be equal across the state, or they could vary according to local costs of living, special education, or other factors. Parents could add their own money if they wished to "purchase" a more expensive school.

Because schools would have a new source of direct revenue other than taxpayers – the parents – measures to please the parents and sharpen parental involvement would be encouraged.

Another innovative idea (which could be put in place with or without a voucher plan) would be to give ownership of each public school to the teachers now teaching there, without the bureaucracy we now confront – and giving the teacher-owners the same freedom as private schools. Since it would give teachers a direct financial stake in the change, many would support the idea from the start. Some might choose to organize their schools as corporations, with profit-sharing plans or stock options. This may seem far-fetched, but it's already being done in a number of private schools. Teachers would benefit both financially and in improved self-esteem. And the opportunity for reward and profit would encourage teacher-owners to improve education.

Are teachers qualified to run schools? Some say that teachers are not entrepreneurs and are incapable of running schools, a statement which may be true for some but surely not for a great many in the profession. Given the opportunity, entrepreneurial qualities blossom from people in any and all walks of life.

Minnesota will begin experimenting in the fall of 1991 with a plan that is intended to tap the spirit of enterprise among teachers. That state will allow the creation of independently run public schools, known as "chartered schools." A new law gives teachers, backed by parents, the right to apply for charters to set up and operate their own schools.

According to The Los Angeles Times, "With chartered schools, the role of the school board, traditionally the educational system's dictator, fades to that of a monitor. Teachers must demonstrate to their sponsoring school board that they are performing on agreed-upon educational goals, but they gain unprecedented class­room freedom.

"Chartered schools are funded," says The Times, "from the same pool of public money now spent on traditional public schools .... Open enrollment will allow students to pick schools in whatever district they choose, and their state education dollars will follow them...."

The new Minnesota plan is a further small step in the right direction, but so much more could be done. And Michigan is still far behind Minnesota!

The bottom line is this: Transforming the public schools into free enterprises, or at least injecting free enterprise virtues into education to the maximum degree possible consistent with the noble goal of making education available to all who seek it, is the path to genuine reform and real progress. We could cut the Gordian knot that has thwarted the potential of so many from teachers to students to parents. We could halt or even roll back ever-increasing taxes for a system that fails to deliver. Michigan could excel in education and as a consequence, in every other aspect of life and society.

The time for change has arrived. The time for educational choice for Michigan is now. What are we waiting for?