Lessons for California from National School Choice Week

National School Choice Week kicks off on January 23, and California should be leading the country in student-centered, parent-driven reform. In the Golden State, unfortunately, system-centered education prevails, and parents empowered to choose their children’s schools are the exception, not the rule.

Last year, California adopted the “parent trigger.” If a majority of parents petition their children’s school to change, the district must comply by allowing it to become an independently operated charter school, follow a federally prescribed “turn-around” model, or shut down. Parents from Compton’s McKinley Elementary School – who successfully petitioned the Compton Unified School District to convert their failing public school to a charter school last month – consider the parent trigger a lifeline. In contrast, teacher union bosses have likened the parent trigger to a “lynch mob” and “mob rule.”

Gov. Jerry Brown also replaced several vocal reformers on the State Board of Education with defenders of the status quo. Rather than reversing course, California should be revving up reform efforts as other states are doing. Consider Florida, for example.

Gov. Rick Scott’s student-centered reform agenda includes education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents worth 85 percent of students’ public school funding. These can be used for private school tuition, fees for dual enrollment courses at public or independent colleges or universities, tutoring, college savings plans, and other options. The remaining 15 percent of funding would go back to the general fund. Parents would also receive an annual financial statement detailing their school’s revenues, expenditures, and academic outcomes with comparisons to other schools.

ESAs are grounded in the principle that the ones earning the money know how to spend it best—especially when it comes to their children. Putting parents in charge of their children’s education dollars enables them to find the best quality schools at the best prices. ESAs have the added benefit that parents can save any unused dollars for college—which also saves the state.

Absent competition for students and their education dollars, bloated schooling bureaucracies have no incentive to slim down or shape up. Inflation-adjusted per-pupil expenditures increased more than 16 percent nationwide from the 1999-00 school year to the 2006-07 school year, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Expenditures in California increased nearly 23 percent over that same period. In contrast, direct instruction expenditures decreased nearly 1 percent nationwide and more than 4 percent in California.

Such statistics typify system-centered schooling. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson admitted as much earlier this month. Confronted with tough economic times, school districts cut core services. According to Torlakson, 58 percent of school districts have cut instructional materials, and 35 percent have reduced their teaching force. Given recent financial data, there is no guarantee that Torlakson’s “solution” for more money will reverse the trend of fewer dollars for direct instruction in California public schools.

When it comes to student-centered education, Florida is leaving California in the dust. In the past decade, the Sunshine State has virtually eliminated achievement gaps. In fact, Florida’s Hispanic fourth graders are the equivalent of nearly one-and-a-half grade levels ahead of all California fourth-graders in reading. They also outperform all fourth-graders in 26 other states.

“Access to high-quality educational experiences is the right of every student and the responsibility of the state,” according to Torlakson. “Today, the State of California has not lived up to this commitment for all students, particularly poor, racial/ethnic minority students; English learners; and students with disabilities.” The superintendent is correct when he states, “This need not be.”

Letting parents direct their children’s education dollars to schools that value instruction over administration—and empowering schools to craft common-sense budgets—is essential for systemic education reform. Education savings accounts could be a powerful vehicle for long-overdue education reform, which has been stymied for too long by entrenched public-schooling special interests.

If California’s elected officials are serious about real reform, they should spend National School Choice Week studying what education leaders in Florida and the rest of the country are doing—then emulate it. The goal should be to make parent-driven, student-centered education the rule, not the exception, in the Golden State.

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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