Duncan Wrong Again on School Choice

Freedom Politics, October 6, 2009

As grassroots momentum builds to save the Washington, DC school-choice voucher program from the congressional chopping block, U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan continues to dig in his heels in opposition. His comments betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how the education market works and what parents want for their children.

The five-year-old pilot program gives voucher scholarships of up to $7,500 to low-income Washington students to attend the private schools and escape the notoriously bad DC public schools. Approximately 3,000 students have received vouchers since the inception of the program, which has garnered the strong and impassioned support of parents.

“These politicians can’t put themselves in my shoes,” LaTasha Bennet told ABC News. “They can’t understand our struggle to get our children good educations.”

Ms. Bennet was one of more than 1,000 parents who recently rallied outside the U.S. Department of Education to protest the Obama administration’s opposition to the DC scholarship program. Listening to Arne Duncan, one can understand her frustration.

When asked by ABC News for suggestions for parents and children whose vouchers would be cut off, Duncan blithely replied, “I encourage them to come in and look at what’s going on with the public schools here in DC.” Earth to Arne: those parents have seen what’s going on in their children’s public schools and they don’t like it, which is why they want vouchers. In a speech earlier this year, Duncan explained why he opposes choice for parents and their children.

“Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in the community,” claimed Duncan, “I don’t want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown.” “This is why I would argue . . . rather than taking three kids out of there and putting them in a better school and feeling good and sleeping well at night, I want to turn that school around now and do that for those 400, 500, 800, 1,200 kids in that school, and give every child in that school, in that community, something better and do it with a real sense of urgency.”

Duncan’s statement is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. First, it’s disingenuous to fault voucher programs for serving limited populations of students.

Voucher programs in this country have been limited because of the opposition of liberal politicians, teacher unions and other entrenched public education special interests – many of them friends and allies of the Obama administration. If Duncan doesn’t “want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown,” then he should favor a full universal voucher system that gives all parents, not just a few poor parents, the same right to choose the best education option – public or private – for their child.

When asked what he thought about the limited voucher programs in the U.S., Per Unckel, former Swedish minister of education and one of the architects of his country’s much lauded universal voucher program, replied, “That is the problem.”

“The secret of the Swedish voucher program’s success is that it is universal,” he observed, “This is the right of the parents to choose the school that their kids would like to have or the school that is most supportive of the needs of their kids.” “Choice,” he emphasized, “is for everyone, whatever income you have.”

Rather than give all children an immediate escape ticket in the form of a voucher, Duncan wants to turn around poor-performing public schools. Yet it would be delusional in the extreme to believe that President Obama’s massive spending plans will rapidly improve the vast number of poorly performing government-run schools.

In a recent analysis, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute concluded that most of President Obama’s $100 billion education stimulus package has “not been used to advance reforms as the administration has vigorously urged.” “Instead,” according to Smarick, “they are being used to preserve jobs and programs, in effect protecting the status quo.” And as Ronald Reagan famously observed, status quo is Latin for “the mess we’re in.”

Competition in the education marketplace through a universal voucher system or similar widespread school-choice system will foster more positive change than any dictate from Washington. Parents would have an immediate chance to send their children to competing private schools. New private schools would start up to meet the needs and demands of parents. Public schools would feel immediate pressure to improve or lose their customer base.

All these things have already happened in Sweden. In America, Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are taking away choice, crushing a successful voucher program, and sending children to drown in bad public schools. LaTasha Bennet is right. These politicians can’t put themselves in her shoes.

— Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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