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October 23, 2007

Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice

By Dan Lips

Imagine you just bought a $1.3 million home in Santa Barbara, California. Your beautiful new neighborhood is a short drive to the Pacific Ocean. The local public schools must also be great, right?

Guess again. At nearby Santa Barbara High, only 12 percent of high school students meet college preparedness requirements for English and only 51 percent passed the California Standards Test for English. It looks like the thousands of dollars that you'll pay in property taxes each year will secure a lousy education for your children.

Pacific Research Institute scholars Lance Izumi, Vicki Murray, and Rachel Chaney offer this alarming wake-up call for parents in their new book: Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice. The authors tell a troubling story about the quality of public schools in California's middle-class communities:

Too many students at these schools are not grade-level proficient in English. Too many of these students are not grade-level proficient in math. And too many of these students are not ready for college-level work. The supposedly "good" schools that these students attend have produced disturbingly bad results.

The book includes tables of data for parents and a fact-filled tour of California's suburban communities. It even comes with an "Upscale Home Guide" for would-be home buyers to peruse beautiful homes in affluent communities with low-performing public schools.

The authors highlight a number of factors behind the poor performance of many "middle class" public schools. One is widespread financial mismanagement problems. Also contributing are collective bargaining agreements, school board policies, and administrative regulations that restrict school leaders' authority to create quality learning environments in their schools.

The authors argue that the solution to these problems is to create more competition in public education by expanding parental choice: 

In view of the poor and mediocre performance of their children's schools, it is time for the middle class to demand forcefully that they be given the control over their children's education, as is their right. Middle-class parents in Orange County or San Mateo or Modesto have as much need as poor parents in Washington, D.C. or Milwaukee to take their children out of failing public schools and place them in better-performing private or public schools. A wasted education is harmful for children of all income levels, and for society at large.

For many middle-class parents, the news that their children need school choice may come as a surprise. In polls, people consistently give the public schools in their community A's and B's, while grading public schools nationally a C or D. Parents writing checks for steep mortgage payments each month may resist the idea that the local public schools are lousy.

But the facts are compelling. As more middle-class parents recognize the problems in their children's public schools, reform advocates should be prepared to offer policy solutions that appeal to middle-class families.

Beyond the traditional proposals like vouchers, education tax credits, and charter schools, reform advocates should consider education savings accounts, which help families to save for their children's education expenses. ESAs could win quick support among middle class families.

Today, more than 30 states already offer tax incentives for contributions into 529 college savings plans, which are ESAs that help families save for their children's college expenses. In 2006, the College Board reported that Americans had invested $93 billion in 529 college savings plans.

In addition, the federal government offers families tax-free saving for both K-12 and higher education expenses through the Coverdell ESA program. No states provide a tax incentive for contributions made into these accounts.

Offering families the same tax incentives for saving for K-12 education that are currently available for higher education would help more families give their children a quality education. A promising student who isn't doing well in the local public school, for example, might benefit from a transfer into private school or from tutoring, summer school, or home instruction. Expanded ESA incentives would empower more families to try these options.

But beginning to solve the problems in America's middle class public schools won't be possible until more people recognize that there is a problem. For this reason, Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice should be required reading for parents concerned about their children's future.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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