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The School Choice Glacier: Slow Moving But Unstoppable
By David W. Kirkpatrick (January 17, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
Little thought is often given to the degree to which parents exercise their constitutional right to decide what school their child(ren) attend.  Even a survey of public school parents a few years back concluded that a majority of them, about 53%, live where they do so their children can attend schools they do.  Assuming the poll's accuracy, that means about 26,000,000 public school students are where they wish to be, or at least their parents wish them to be.
 
This should make clear an often overlooked point - the argument about the constitutionality of school choice is largely a false issue.  In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Pierce decision, ruled 9-0 that parents - all parents - have both a duty and a constitutional right to determine how and where their children will be educated.  That is, while the state does have an interest in an educated citizenry, so parents may not fail to see that their children are educated, it does not have a similar degree of interest in how that education is obtained.
 
Thus the discussion, as with the Supreme Court's 2002 Zelman decision upholding Ohio's voucher program in Cleveland, was not about the constitutionality of school choice, but concerned the constitutionality of using public funds to help low-income families exercise a constitutional right they could not afford on their own.
 
In brief, then, those who insist that those children must remain in their public school no matter how inadequate, or actually harmful, they may be, are, in fact, declaring economic war upon the children of low-income families
 
One step to alleviate this problem, without directly challenging the public school system, has been the passage of laws permitting students to attend any public school in the state - in-state being a necessary limitation because no state can compel another state to accept its students.  The problem with this approach is its practicality.  Exercising the options theoretically presented by open enrollment laws is severely limited by the lack of transportation and available schools within a reasonable distance.
 
Some 10,000 of the nation's 14,000+ school districts have only a few thousand students.  Many are so small they only have one school or, at best, one at each level such as elementary, middle school or high school.  Thus there is no practical alternative to attend a similar but more desirable school in that district or attend one elsewhere.
 
That leads to the areas where most of the controversy is to be found, at the top of which list are vouchers.  Ignoring the publicly funded choice programs in some areas of New England, especially Vermont, where what is known as "tuitioning" dates from the 19th century, vouchers began to appear with Wisconsin's introduction of them in Milwaukee in the 1990s.  Despite strenuous opposition, that program has not only persisted but has been repeatedly expanded.  It has also been joined by a number of other programs, both publicly and privately funded.
 
Still, while expanding, and with no end in sight,  the availability of vouchers is relatively limited.
 
More important, both in current size and rapidity of expansion, is the charter school movement.  >From none in 1990 there are now more than 4,200 schools enrolling some 1,250,000 students.  While not all charter schools are successful, neither are all public schools.  At least failing charter schools are often closed, unlike their public counterparts, which tend to go on indefinitely, wasting public dollars and students' lives.
 
Then, on an even smaller scale, there are the tuition tax deduction programs, as in Pennsylvania. While currently affecting only a relatively few thousand students they may become more common.
 
Last, for reasons of space, there are the approximate 5,000,000 students in nonpublic schools and as many as 2,000,000 being homeschooled, up from as few as 10,000 in 1980.
 
Thus there may be 35,000,000 or more students using choice options.  If their parents ever unite for choice the battle will be over.
 
Even the teacher unions three million members (many of whom exercise choice for their own children) cannot resist such a force.
 
Ironically the numbers of those exercising choice may be slowing further success.  Having choice for themselves they may lack sufficient motivation to promote such options.

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"All politics are based on the indifference of the majority." --James Reston, quoted, p. 216, FORBES Magazine, August 23, 1999

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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