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Cities, Schools, and Choice
By David W. Kirkpatrick (February 28, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
The following is adapted from a commentary by Jake Haulk, President of the Allegheny Institute in Pittsburgh. While written with reference to that city and its schools - which reportedly spend $18,000 annually per student - it is relevant to many other cities in the nation.
There can be little doubt that much of the population loss in many of the nation's cities can be blamed on their public schools. Substantial numbers of parents interested in a better education for their children, and who cannot afford private schooling, move out of the city to take advantage of better schools.
In a recent Allegheny Institute forum, former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist spoke of his experience instituting one of the nation's first voucher programs in Milwaukee. In what he calls the "educational-finance monopoly", families are compelled to send their children to public schools. Those who can afford to move out of the city typically do so as their children approach school age—and take their tax dollars with them.
As a result, Norquist began a push for school choice noting that "school choice is especially good for cities" in helping to maintain their tax base. He further observed that "under the traditional government monopoly in education, children from affluent families were leaving the public schools, and leaving children from less-affluent families behind. Instead of choosing an alternative school for their children, wealthy parents were choosing an alternative place to live.
In Milwaukee's voucher system, the parents are assigned an amount equal to the state's share of the per pupil expenditure to spend at the school of their choice—currently about $8,000 per year. The local per pupil share, derived from property taxes, remains with the school district.
Many factors contribute to the decline of a city's population, but there is no doubt that the performance of the public schools is one of the major determinants. Note that in the ten years between 1990—just before vouchers were available—and 2000, combined private and public school enrollment in Milwaukee rose by 14.4 percent.
So what are the lessons from the Milwaukee experience if there are folks who would like to adopt a voucher system?
First, they will need a lot of help from the Legislature. Milwaukee had Polly Williams in the Wisconsin Legislature to help push through the legislation to make the voucher system possible.
Secondly, there needs to be support from the school board and superintendent. Norquist notes that as mayor of the city, his influence was used to get pro-voucher school board members elected who then hired a superintendent willing to reform the public school system.
The Milwaukee voucher system is less than twenty years old and with its current limit of 22,500 students who may participate is not yet a completely free choice system. But it was a good start and has shown the way for other cities around the country; including Cleveland and Washington DC .
Parents must take a leading role in the fight for school choice. Help from civic groups, business groups, and the philanthropic community will almost certainly be needed to reach the desired goal of a generous, far reaching voucher program.
It is must be recognized that school choice is a fundamental component of freedom and freedom is always a good thing in promoting competition and economic vitality. It is not pie in the sky rhetoric. The question has to be asked, "Why are parents being forced to send their children to poorly performing, sometimes physically dangerous schools that are egregiously failing the majority of students and where there is little or no improvement year after year?" In fact, the case can be made that for many schools things continue to get worse over time.
It is time for cities to create some real school choice opportunities for those currently being held hostage by force of state law and school board governance of a system that fails far too many young people. This is a moral issue. Preservation of school districts and those who are employed by it is not the foremost consideration. Offering opportunities for parents to seek the best education for their children without having to leave the City should be everyone's primary goal.
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"The cities have been murdered by their schools. If the schools were good, we could handle the other problems." --Jerrold R. Zacharias, professor, M.I.T., p. 18, The National Observers, September 1, 1969
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633