School choice for more than just Obama, Gates

Bill Gates recently released his annual letter on the state of his foundation. It turns out that he, President Obama and Chicago school chief Arne Duncan, the president’s pick for education secretary, have something in common. All say that the key experience in their life was their attendance at their childhood private schools. What’s troubling is that, despite these experiences, none of these important individuals support giving all parents the tools needed to ensure that their children have similar opportunities for a good education.

In his letter Mr. Gates observed, “The private high school I attended, Lakeside in Seattle, made a huge difference in my life.” Mr. Gates realizes that the high-quality education he received is still denied to most American children.

“How many kids,” he asks, “don’t get the same chance to achieve their full potential?” Answering his own question he says: “The number is very large. Every year, 1 million kids drop out of high school.” He then acknowledges that his education-reform efforts, such as supporting reducing the size of schools, have not borne much fruit. Although he says positive things about de-regulated public charter schools, he doesn’t make the logical leap that a universal publicly funded voucher or similar school-choice tool would give all American parents the chance at a Lakeside-quality education for their children.

Like Mr. Gates, President Obama has similar reflections on his time at Punahou, Hawaii’s top-notch private school. The new president has noted: “Punahou gave me a great foundation so that when I got older, and wiser, I knew what it was to work hard and strive for excellence. I think it instills that in a lot of kids.”

“Certainly,” he said, “there was an emphasis on values and ethics and being a good citizen, as well as a good student.” He admitted, “I didn’t always observe these admonitions,” but he went on to add: “[That emphasis] has an impact on you. It gives you a sense of what you should be striving for. And even if you’re rebelling from it, as I was during my teenage years, it still sunk in, and had a long term impact on the trajectory of my life.” Despite this impact, the new president adamantly opposes school-choice options that would put Punahou-quality education within reach of all Americans.

Last July, Mr. Obama told the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes “using public money for private-school vouchers.” He reiterated this opposition throughout the campaign and now refers to “vouchers against the status quo” as one of education’s supposedly tired debates.

As for Arne Duncan, he has said that his childhood education at the private University of Chicago Laboratory School, which Barack Obama’s children attended, was his formative experience and that he was “so lucky to go there.” Attending a great school, however, shouldn’t depend on luck. Mr. Gates, President Obama and Mr. Duncan should look to countries like Sweden, where universal school-choice is the law.

Under the Swedish model, public funding follows the child to whichever school he or she attends, so parents, regardless of income level, may pick either a public or private independent school. Per Unckel, current governor of Stockholm and a former Swedish education minister, says that all parents have the inherent right to send their children to the school of their choice. Parents, he emphasized, should be given choice options immediately without having to wait for government-run schools to take years to improve, because every year in a failing school is a year wasted in a child’s life. Research shows that the Swedish private schools outperform the public schools and that the competition resulting from the program has raised public-school performance.

Messrs. Gates, Obama and Duncan all commendably want to improve education. However, if they want to achieve this goal they should contemplate how the high-quality education they received in the private sector can be made available to all children, not just to people like themselves — the wealthy, powerful and privileged. Tweaking the government-run schools won’t do it, but real school choice for all will.

Lance T. Izumi is senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute and host of the upcoming documentary Not as Good As You Think: The Myth of the Middle Class School.

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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