Parents still not free to choose in California

The Eureka Reporter (CA), Feb 3, 2008

Tuesday was Milton Friedman Day. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may at last be taking a first step toward putting into action the ideas of the late Nobel laureate and “Father of Modern School Reform.”

One in three California public school students is now in a school district that hasn’t made adequate yearly progress toward academic proficiency for at least three consecutive years. Those 98 districts enroll more than 2 million students. The governor vowed in his State of the State Address that “California will be the first state to use its powers given to us under this No Child Left Behind Act to turn these districts around.” The official term for those powers is “corrective action.”

The corrective options at Schwarzenegger’s disposal include replacing staff, reorganizing schools and even appointing outside experts to oversee operations. Should those districts fail to make AYP again next year, some could be required to let parents choose better schools for their children. This is the option Friedman first advocated more than 50 years ago.

In a 2005 interview, he explained what inspired him to write about parental choice in education, and why education dollars should follow students instead of subsidizing wasteful bureaucracies. “I was writing a piece on the role of government in education,” he said, “and I started to think about how government intervention tends not to work very well … . Empowering parents would generate a competitive education market, which would lead to a burst of innovation and improvement, as competition has done in so many other areas. There’s nothing that would do so much to avoid the danger of a two-tiered society, of a class-based society. And there’s nothing that would do so much to ensure a skilled and educated work force.”

In his Milton Friedman Day proclamation statement last year, Schwarzenegger explained that Friedman’s work restored a belief in an individual to be free to choose. “He was an intellectual hero of mine,” the governor said, yet he and other elected officials have failed to take Friedman’s advice, thus denying the basic right of California parents to choose their children’s schools.

The budgets of the 98 districts slated for corrective action under federal law average more than $200 million each, according to U.S. Department of Education records for fiscal year 2005 (the most recent year comprehensive financial data are available.) Total per-student revenue from all sources is on average $10,000.

Total revenue for the Oakland Unified District is $510 million, or $10,400 per student. At $7.4 billion, the revenue for the Los Angeles Unified District rivals general-fund budgets of some states and amounts to $10,300 per student. Marin County’s Lagunitas Elementary District has modest total revenue of $5.2 million, yet that amounts to more than $17,000 per student. The Orange County Office of Education’s revenue beats them all. Just shy of $250 million, its total revenue is more than $30,000 per student.

The sad truth is that unacceptable academic performance in California is not limited to a handful of the state’s more than 1,100 public school districts. The California Standards Test measures grade-level student proficiency against state standards. It shows that across grade levels half of all students are not proficient in math. Nearly 60 percent are not proficient in reading.

Those students will likely finish their K-12 years without being allowed to attend better schools, given California policy makers’ history of appeasement of special interest groups that oppose parental choice — teacher unions chief among them. Poor performance, meanwhile, is also not limited to inner-city public schools.

At more than one in 10 affluent suburban public schools, a majority of students in at least one grade score below proficient on the CST in reading or math. Students at hundreds more affluent suburban high schools do not test college-ready on the Early Assessment Program. This, despite the fact that fewer than one-third of students enrolled in these schools are poor. Few are English learners or have disabilities. Parents in these communities are well-educated and most teachers are certified.

It should not take an act of Congress for California to get its schoolhouses in order. Nor should parents have to keep their children in schools that fail to improve year after year. Alternatives should be immediate.

This would be the Year of Education Reform, if we end the country’s largest government school monopoly and ensure that all California parents, regardless of income or address, were free to choose their children’s schools. That would be the governor’s greatest tribute to Milton Friedman, whose life’s work brought freedom to many other parts of the world.

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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