The media is rife with chatter about the collapse and the future of urban education in America. Pundits only need to look at Detroit to get a clear and realistic picture of the problem. The public schools experience in the Motor City reveals a wretched history of failure. Parental choice offers the surest path to bridging the learning morass and mercifully ending government school control.
School officials have tried centralization, decentralization and recentralization of the district over many years without improving student outcomes. Attempts to restore credibility to the delivery system have been a waste of time and money. Even private investment fell short of making a long-term difference.
Changing the governance structure, transferring school responsibility to the mayor, and modifying the relationship between the school board and the financial manager, offer no guarantees of enhanced educational performance. In fact, the ongoing conflict between the discredited school board and the ineffective emergency financial manager has successfully skewed the debate away from what is best for the students and toward the parochial objectives of the controlling entity.
The most persistently applied academic improvement strategy has been to commit more dollars to conditions that are no longer fixable. However, the precipitous rise in the cost of education, plus a declining revenue base and student enrollment, has long ago erased any link between the amount of money flowing into the system and the potential quality of education. The district is broke and it is not prudent for parents and policymakers to pump more dollars into a worthless education model.
What the system lacks is a liberating rescue plan. What parents have received over the last four decades is a rudimentary massaging around the peripheral edges of reform, and a lot of excuses. Continuation of these crass inefficiencies is no longer defensible. If the goal is to save children now, the rules of engagement must change.
More schools of choice, charter schools and private schools would shift resources, investments and returns from the failed government school establishment to students and parents. Because they empower parents rather than school boards or bureaucrats, educational “choice scholarships” or vouchers, would inject a major dose of competition into the process. Parents would have the extraordinary power to remove children from schools that fall short of education quality. Failing schools would also lose the state dollars that go with students to competing schools.
I can already hear the angry chorus from the education establishment echoing the argument against parental choice as “destroying” public schools by siphoning off state dollars. Teacher unions and bureaucrats will complain that public schools would be relegated to third-class status with the “creaming” of the brightest students from the system; that some parents aren’t capable of effectively choosing the best schools for their children.
Many Detroit’s schools, though, have already been reduced to Third World status. The district is comatose, on artificial life support. Parents are on a deathwatch. And emergency financial managers, teachers and bureaucrats don’t deserve first-class pay when they are only able to deliver a second-rate product.
I have always been intrigued by claims by the city’s hierarchy that the proliferation of charter and private schools mean ‘the end of public education as we know it.” I don’t see the downside. I have observed that each time a new charter or private school opens, it is immediately filled with defectors trying to escape public school dysfunction.
The system of public education has been the traditional pathway to success. If it isn’t working — and in Detroit it is not – urban students have the door of opportunity slammed in their face. If real opportunity and access to better schools is the objective, legislators and policymakers can’t justify denying parents and students the right to attend the school of their choice. If that means letting the state-run system of urban public education die a deserved and natural death, so be it.