- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

While American cars, computers, life-saving medical treatments and even cleaning products continue to advance each year, our public education system remains at a virtual standstill.

In many inner-city neighborhoods, the situation seems hopeless, not only to families that live there, but also to their more-fortunate neighbors, whose taxes have financed the education establishment’s costly wish list for the past three decades with little or nothing to show for it. A generation already has been lost; we can not afford to leave another behind. It is clearly time for change.

I am now convinced more than ever that the only way to fix our public schools is by ending their de facto monopoly on education. That means we need to provide parents — yes, all parents, even the unemployed single mom in the poorest inner-city neighborhood — with options for their children.

Just as we have choices of sports cars, SUVs, sedans, and family minivans (among others) when we shop for a car, we need a full menu of education choices: public schools, private schools, religious schools, and “charter” schools.

Some mischaracterize education “choice” as a radical new idea. But it is really a return to America’s educational roots, which, as Diane Ravitch of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution has noted, embraced “variety and pluralism” throughout the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries.

Many different types of schools took root, from public schools like Boston Latin, established by the Town of Boston in April 1635 — long before our forefathers began to dream of nationhood — to parochial schools, home schools, and even public-private partnerships, known as “academies” (a forerunner to the modern charter school). Families chose how best to educate their children … and the system worked.

During the mid- to latter half of the 19th century, immigration and industrialization fueled rapid urbanization in the new nation. Crime, poverty and child labor abuses spurred civil unrest, causing many to wonder, ‘What will become of the land of the free?’ This great sea change in America produced the “Common School” movement.

In order to make sure every child received an education, especially immigrants and the newly freed African-Americans, the federal government began to subsidize schools in the late 1800s, creating the public school system as we know it today.

In short, America’s early education system adapted itself to the needs and the times. It was the right thing to do; and it was effective.

That’s what education must do today — adjust itself to America’s changing needs and the changing times.

Despite leading the industrialized nations in education expenditures, United States students consistently remain among the lowest achievers in the group. Over the past 30 years, per-student expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools have increased 83 percent — to an average of $6,584 in 2000 (higher in many of our most troubled school systems, like Washington, D.C.). Simultaneously, student-teacher ratios dropped more than 20 percent during this time.

Despite the increased spending and lower student-teacher ratios, many children, especially low-income African-Americans are trapped in public schools where failure is considered the norm.

African-American families are crying out for change. Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC) has been tracking African-American opinion on this issue for many years. In our 2003 survey, and keeping with similar results of previous polls, a majority of African-Americans gave their public schools a “C” grade or lower, citing low academic standards, lack of classroom discipline, and teacher apathy toward drugs and crime as the main reasons their schools were failing.

It’s not surprising, then, that increasing numbers of African-Americans — 56 percent in the District of Columbia, according to a recent poll by The Washington Post — now favor “using federal money in the form of vouchers to help send low-income students” to private or parochial schools. The Post survey focused on giving D.C. parents a choice, but other polls confirm The Post’s findings nationally.

We must now realize that the government-funded public education system alone isn’t meeting the needs of all students, too many of whom slip through the cracks without even learning the basics, let alone the skills to succeed in our rapidly changing world. The only way to change this is by giving parents a choice.

Many will choose charter schools, which are public schools with the autonomy to make their own decisions about budget, curriculum, management and standards. In exchange, these schools must produce results.

That’s what is missing from traditional public education today — accountability. And that’s what we need to restore.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of BAMPAC, Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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