- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

"If we take down the wall, the people will leave," said East German officials during the Cold War. This mantra might also describe the position of school employee unions and other opponents of educational freedom in the United States. But despite their opposition to school choice, it is inevitable that the wall preventing educational freedom will come down. Free people and a free marketplace are the foundations of America.

The most prevalent argument of school choice opponents is that educational freedom will destroy public schools because children will leave to attend private schools, taking their government funding with them.

The argument itself is an indictment of public schools and their ability to keep customers that are not captives. If they admit that tearing down the wall will lead to a mass exodus then they have admitted that they are not satisfying their true customers parents and children.

In free markets consumers' power to choose provides the incentive for suppliers to efficiently provide excellent products and services. American prosperity and quality of life are the benefits of the economic freedom we enjoy in virtually every other market. But those who have a stake in protecting the government monopoly of K-12 education want us to believe that, although free markets work in every other area of American life, including higher education, K-12 children should stay behind the wall. The result: Since 1983, more than 10 million American students have entered 12th grade without basic reading skills and more than 20 million are unable to perform basic math.

Elected public officials and school personnel are often guardians of the wall. Recently a school district in Philadelphia charged a low-income mother with the felony of "theft of educational services," which brings a possible $15,000 fine and 3.5 years in jail. Her crime? Trying to obtain a higher quality education for her children in a neighboring school district by giving a misleading address. Too poor to move to the better district or to pay private school tuition, she saw this as the only way to obtain a better education for her children. As part of a plea bargain to a lesser charge, she was required to reimburse the district $3,000 for each child, but when she did not comply with court requirements she was jailed.

Interestingly, while many urban public school personnel fight to prevent parents from choosing the best and safest schools for their children, urban teachers nationwide send their children to private schools at a rate more than double that of the general public.

According to 1990 census data, 35.9 percent of Philadelphia public school teachers sent their children to private schools.

We see similar hypocrisy on the part of some elected officials who oppose school choice. Twenty-six percent of U.S. representatives and 41 percent of U.S. senators send their children to private schools, while the 1990 census data shows that only 13 percent of the general public sends children to private schools.

While not all school personnel and elected officials oppose school choice, clearly some of the opponents of educational freedom are exercising the choices that they enjoy because of their prosperity, while they are ensuring that there are no poor children sitting next to their children at school.

With millions of dollars in annual revenues, school employee unions are the most heavily armed guardians of the wall. Union soft money and PAC contributions provide the ammunition to support candidates that shoot down every attempt at educational freedom.

Presently only the economically advantaged can scale this wall and choose the best schools for their children. For the rest of American parents, the wall blocking educational opportunity seems impenetrable. But there is hope.

Incredibly diverse groups of freedom fighters have emerged all across the country to promote charter schools, greater choice between public schools, private scholarship tax credits and vouchers. While methods differ, each group removes a few bricks from the wall.

Michigan exemplifies the surprising alliances that emerge. In 1999, reform-minded public school board members created the Michigan School Board Leaders Association. MSBLA has brought together charter, private and traditional public school board members who are dedicated to removing the barriers to child-centered reforms and educational freedom.

Michigan's November ballot proposal, calling for teacher testing and vouchers for children in failing school districts, has attracted a diverse coalition. It is common to see inner-city parents, business leaders, pastors, nuns, rabbis, Republicans, Democrats, and even teachers and public school board members working for its passage.

With Americans from every walk of life working together, there is no doubt that, despite the heavily armed opposition, the wall will come down one brick at a time. As it comes down we will see captives turn into empowered customers. And we will see, as we have seen in every other area of our great country, free people in free markets creating excellence.

Lori Yaklin is executive director of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association.

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