April 25, 2001

April 25, 2001 | Commentary on Education

Look Who's Supporting School Choice Now

No wonder the California Teachers Association was howling. Ray Haynes actually wanted them to practice what they preach.

Haynes, a Republican state senator from California, recently introduced legislation in Sacramento that would have required public school teachers to send their children to public schools. Teachers cried out in opposition from the Redwood forests of northern California to the Mexican border. "People," said CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski, "have the right to put their children in [private schools]."

Teachers' union officials for school choice? Before Haynes' bill, that group could have met comfortably in a phone booth. Just last fall, that same union led the fight -- ultimately successful -- against California's Proposition 38, an initiative to offer parents private-school vouchers. A dollar for vouchers, the union argued, moved the public-school system a dollar closer to starvation and further from excellence.

So why did Haynes' legislation strike a nerve? As it turns out, one-third of California's teachers send their kids to private schools, a CTA study shows.

But they're not the only school-choice hypocrites around. Federal lawmakers also have opted out of public schools in significant numbers. A Heritage Foundation survey last year found that, among respondents with school-aged children, 40 percent in the House of Representatives and 49 percent in the Senate send or have sent at least one child to private school. Never mind that each attempt to pass a bill to give the rest of America's parents this same opportunity faces staunch opposition from many of these same lawmakers.

Now, if a third of the teachers and nearly half the members of Congress pull their children out of public education, what does that tell us about it? It tells us that those who know most about public education in this country understand the value of choice. But it doesn't tell us why choice shouldn't extend to all families.

It also doesn't tell us what's wrong with programs, such as Florida's A+ Plan, in which students at schools that fail for three straight years become eligible for vouchers. Or the privately funded programs in Cleveland, New York and Washington, D.C., which, a Harvard University study has shown, produce far more achievement than the public school system.

Teachers may view school choice as a threat to their jobs, but what about politicians? Embracing choice could save jobs for some of them. School choice enjoys support across the political spectrum because study after study shows choice and voucher programs work. Black voters -- whose children often get stuck in the nation's worst public schools -- are more likely than whites to support vouchers, according to a poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a non-profit organization specializing in minority issues.

What the unions refuse to understand is that school choice helps public schools. Competition spurs improvement. And the voucher option does not take the best and brightest from the public schools. According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, students who are successful in one school tend to stay there, and those in trouble -- low-performing students in need of a change -- tend to look elsewhere.

It's time for the teachers unions to stop denying poor children who attend poor schools the same opportunity their members' children enjoy. It's not a question of radical groups getting control of government money or a church-state argument. Choice advocates favor more scrutiny, more testing, more accountability.

It's not a question of money, either. Voucher amounts typically are for less than the per-student amount spent by the local public school district, and waiting lines for current voucher programs suggest that parents consider the amount sufficient. Besides, the head of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, says his group won't support voucher programs, even if per-pupil outlays were tripled and directed only to inner cities with failing schools.

So if it's not about the money and it's not about choice, what's it about? Whatever it is, it can't be as important as ensuring that every child gets the best education possible.

Jennifer Garrett is a researcher in Domestic Policy Studies for The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a public policy research institute.

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Jennifer Garrett Research Associate

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