The case for school choice

A Common Sense look at education reform

The case for school choice

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 06 May 2005

Do you trust politicians? Do you think they always have your best interests at heart? Or your children’s interests? My experience is certainly that most people who go into politics do so with a desire to do good, as they see it. But they come under a lot of pressure. Pressure from ‘experts’ who always know best. Pressure from lobby groups with plenty of money. Some of the most dangerous fall into both categories: public sector unions.

Governments are too inclined to listen to unions. For a union’s allegiance is always to its members. That will sometimes overlap with the interests of consumers, but not always, or even often. Perhaps the best example is in the case of schools.

Teachers’ unions and politicians can’t be trusted to look after your children’s future. But you can. Parents always want the best for their children. If you can be trusted to decide where your children will live, what they will eat and what they will drink, you should also be able to choose what they will learn. And where.

There is a myth that ownership by the government means ownership by the people. When you last visited your children’s school, did you really feel like you were the owner? Did they treat you like the owner? Did they explain things to you the way they would if the owner of the business was visiting? Did they even treat you like a valued customer?

This is the problem, and putting parents in charge is the solution. Open enrolment for schools – where parents choose a state school, and schools are paid per pupil – is a good start, but it is not enough. After all, outside big cities few parents have a realistic choice of schools, because even the second nearest school is too far away. (Though let us not sneer at even this small progress. Some parents will always live almost equidistant between two schools. And big cities often face the worst problems. So giving realistic choice to some parents has to be a good start.)

But a realistic school choice program has to involve vouchers. A voucher you can present to any school – public or private, big or small, established or new – or which you can use to fund home-schooling, forces every school to improve.

There are already businesses which set up and run schools at a profit for about the same money per pupil as state schools get. Some parents would certainly be willing to top up the voucher if that is what it took to get their children into a better school. Opinion polls regularly show that a clear majority of parents would choose private schools if they could afford it.

Wealthy politicians happily choose schools for their own children, while saying that voters are not fit to make the same choice. It is long past time we learned to trust parents. Parents know and love their own children. Children are not all the same. The school that suits one child will not always suit another – just because they happen to live in the same street. Children have different interests, different abilities, and different personalities. They respond to different teaching styles and educational philosophies.

I do not believe in a single, state run, uniform model of schooling. I will believe it is right to eliminate diversity in schooling, the day someone eliminates diversity in children.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 06 May 2005

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