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The encouraging rise in school choice

Children’s education shouldn’t be a take-it-or-leave-it commodity

- - Monday, September 1, 2014

America is built on the philosophy of bootstrapping, or pulling yourself up through your own talents and abilities. No tool is better suited for doing that than a good education.

For years, however, a good primary and secondary education has been increasingly difficult to find. But I'm happy to report, at the start of another school year, that an encouraging trend is underway: School choice is helping more and more children get the best education possible — and putting the teachers' unions on notice that the failed status quo is no longer acceptable.

Take the dramatic rise in students participating in school-choice programs. The number taking advantage of options such as vouchers, tuition tax credit programs and education savings accounts has gone from fewer than 50,000 in 2000 to more than 300,000 today.

As education expert Virginia Walden Ford notes in the "2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity," when we consider all school choice options — deductions for homeschooling expenses, for example — more than 1 million children are benefiting from choice in education. That's quite a jump to occur in just over a decade.

Charter school enrollment is climbing as well. In 1999, fewer than 500,000 students were in such schools, but now the number is closer to 2 million. From 2001 to 2011, charter-school enrollment increased by about 1.22 million students.

This shouldn't surprise us one bit. It's only natural that parents would take advantage of the rise in school choice options to ensure that their kids were in the best schools possible.

The idea that you have no choice but to attend the school closest to where you live, or the school that the "authorities" assign to you, is absurd. It's blatantly anti-American, quite frankly. When someone receives a Pell Grant to help finance higher education, the government doesn't assign him to a college. Why should it be any different for the education that precedes college?

Of course not. Yet something far more important to us — not only as parents who care about our children but as citizens who care about our country — is treated as a non-negotiable, take-it-or-leave-it commodity.

That's why the rise in school choice is such a promising trend. It means that the stranglehold that teachers' unions still exert on American education is weakening. It means that parents who want the best education possible for their children can pick the best one available, not settle for whatever they're given, no matter how poor it is.

It's hard to imagine a more hopeful trend for our nation. As Ms. Ford notes, this means children who at one time would have had a very slim chance at succeeding are doing just that. She cites the example of Jordan White, who, after enrolling in a Washington, D.C., private school, went on to graduate from Oberlin College.

"Jordan is now working in Japan as a translator for a large Japanese company," she writes. "Without the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship she received to attend the school of her choice, Jordan believes that she would not have been so successful."

There are many more Jordans out there. Ones who are on the path to success because of school choice options, along with many others who will likely fail because they were denied the ability to get the best education possible.

School choice helps everyone. The children who go to a school of their family's choosing will obviously benefit, but so will the children who remain in these schools, which must then start competing for students. In short, they've got to get better — or go out of business. Unions who want to keep checking boxes may not like this, but it's good news for everyone else.

We shouldn't rest until every family is able to pick the best school for their children. We owe it to the Jordans out there. We owe it to their parents. And we owe it to our nation.

Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).