The public learned recently that US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan is sending his children to an elite private school in the fall.
Considering that President Obama has opposed school choice in the nation’s capital and sends his own children to private school, the Secretary’s decision presents another dose of irony regarding the administration’s approach to education.
But even more ironic is that Duncan’s children will be attending private school in the President’s hometown of Chicago, where Duncan ran the public schools from 2001-2009, and where public school employee unions have become a symbol of what is wrong with America.
Thankfully, across the country, momentum is growing for more choice in education. During the last School Choice Week, held each January, more than 11,000 events took place around the country. Most Americans agree that the Duncans – and all parents – should have the right to select their child’s school.
Secretary Duncan is exercising the same prerogative he doesn’t want others to enjoy: to choose the school that will best fit their child’s educational needs.
While there are plenty of good public schools and excellent teachers, not all students have access to them, and some would be better served somewhere that better meets their needs.
Even the best school isn’t the right school for all students. According to the American Federation for Children, an estimated 1.1 million students failed to graduate in 2011. That represents an astonishing 6,000 dropouts a day or one every 29 seconds.
The movement to advance school choice is growing but is up against a powerful lobby. Education unions fear that parents – if given the opportunity – would not choose traditional public schools. That they continue lobbying against more latitude for children is a stinging indictment of the status quo.
Even parents who use the public school system often heavily weigh area districts before choosing where to settle their families. That relegates the most vulnerable kids in poor families, who have little mobility, to attend the lowest performing schools. Indeed, we’ve seen heartbreaking examples of parents who were punished criminally for falsifying their residency, simply because they were desperate to secure a good education for their kids.
Years ago, Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman made the case for separating the financing and administering of education, advocating that dollars follow the child rather than be directed to institutions. Doing so would disrupt the enormous monopoly that is the public school system. But inexplicably, many who might reject a monopoly elsewhere accept it in education.
Even government programs like food stamps and public housing provide vouchers so that recipients can choose where they shop and live— not to mention that education vouchers are available nationwide for preschool and for higher education. Choice is a way of life for Americans.
Think of it this way: without the disruption and deregulation of Ma Bell, phones might all still be tethered to the wall. The demise of that monopoly ushered in explosive innovation in the telecommunications sector.
Adding competition opens the door to innovation, encourages efficiency, and ultimately increases consumer satisfaction. But perhaps this is why the public education bureaucracy resists change. Public schools will need to be more responsive to the needs of students and parents when more families are able to take their education dollars to the school of their choice.
This past Friday, Milton Friedman would have been 103 years old. Though he did not realize the full benefits of school choice, he did predict it would happen. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote about his belief that broad school choice was simply inevitable.
Until then, many students are assigned to schools that do not meet their needs. School choice cannot come soon enough for those families, and groups like Americans for Prosperity and our free-market allies will continue to advocate on their behalf until policymakers across the country ensure that every child is guaranteed the same educational choices that Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s and President Obama’s kids enjoy.
Peggy Venable is Senior States Policy Advisor for Americans for Prosperity Foundation.