November 15, 2005

'Letting Kids Escape'

[This article appeared in the December 15, 2004 issue of the Oklahoma Gazette.]

Many in Oklahoma’s education establishment like to argue that school choice in this state is a nonstarter because Oklahomans currently “choose” public schools over private ones by a ratio of better than 9 to 1. But let’s look a little closer.

Education reporter Mike Antonucci asks, “If the government, under the force of law, takes money from my paycheck every month to supply me and every other citizen with a Yugo, and I choose not to spend additional personal income on a Chevy, am I ‘choosing’ the Yugo?” Not necessarily.

U.S. Department of Education data released in October 2004 tell us that 30,579 students attend private elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma. Informed estimates place the number of Oklahoma homeschoolers at 14,000 to 25,000. So already we have some 50,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren whose parents are not choosing public schools.

That’s a substantial number, though of course it’s small compared to the 625,000 children in Oklahoma’s public schools. But here’s the kicker: Thousands more Oklahomans –- indeed, a majority of Oklahomans –- would leave the public school system if they could afford to.

Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates last year asked 400 registered voters in Oklahoma: “If you had a school-age child and were given a voucher or a tax credit that would cover tuition to any of the following, which would you personally choose for your child?”

Among parents with children under 18 in the home, 58 percent said they would choose a private school, while 39 percent said they would choose a public school.

Think about that for a moment. The government is running a school system which the majority of people would exit if they could. And you wondered why the school employee labor unions oppose school choice!

It’s small wonder that Keith Geiger, former president of the National Education Association, would admonish a school-choice proponent on Larry King’s radio show: “Quit talking about letting kids escape.”

Escape? Telling verb, that.

Sandra Feldman, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, once said the same thing: “The objective is to make the schools good –- not to escape them.”

But the question is, “Whose objective?” We know the unions’ objective: Preserve jobs for the grown-ups. As longtime AFT boss Albert Shanker famously remarked, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

But what if parents have a different objective? If you have a third-grader who still hasn’t been taught to read, you’re probably looking for an escape hatch. If your eighth-grader is afraid to darken the door of her local school-free drug zone, the objective most assuredly is to escape.

Some parents are tired of the incessant –- and unkept –- promises to “make the schools good.” Your little boy is only six years old once. His childhood won’t wait.

Charles Wheelan, a former correspondent for The Economist, writes, “We Democrats are on the wrong side of the school choice issue.”

“From a social justice standpoint,” he argues, “the essence of ‘public’ education is that the government provides an opportunity for all students to attend a decent school, not that all students must attend a publicly operated school. Do we argue that the spirit of Medicare has been compromised because the system uses private hospitals and doctors?”

It’s time to start “letting kids escape.”

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