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,
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
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
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
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
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.