United against choice

Joe Enge

While recognition is growing that greater school choice is badly needed in Nevada and across the country, the National Education Association, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia this summer, hardened its position against charter schools and school choice.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama addressed this convention as full supporters of both public schools and the NEA – despite opting to send their own children to expensive private schools.

So here we have wealthy and affluent presidential candidates sending their children to private schools, all the while marching in lockstep with the NEA, forcing less wealthy and affluent kids to stay trapped in underperforming public school systems.

The NEA and its political allies are fighting tooth and nail to prevent parents of special needs students or minorities from opting out of public schools that are not meeting their educational needs.

Here in Nevada, State Sen. Barbara Cegavske introduced a bill during this year’s Legislative Session that would allow parental choice for special needs students. S.B. 158 passed the Senate unanimously but died in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, never receiving a hearing as the final days of the session expired.

I asked the chairman of the committee, Assemblyman Morse Arberry, about Cegavske’s bill during those final days. His response: “The voucher bill. Democrats don’t like vouchers.”

The message was clear: Political special interests take priority over sound, substantive policy that would provide the best education possible for children and give parents more options.

Growing parental demand for more educational freedom is by no means limited to the Silver State.

Georgia, for one, recently passed a special-needs student choice bill. Jim Wooten, writing in the July 13 issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, observed that “[t]he pent-up demand for alternatives to traditional public schools erupted in Georgia last week. Some 3,300 families of children with special needs applied for vouchers to cover or supplement the purchase of services they want for their children elsewhere. When parents are near tears because they want alternatives they don’t have to traditional public schools, and when 3,300 families step forward to take responsibility for the education of their special-needs children, the public and policy-makers should take note. The world has changed.”

In South Carolina, a political maelstrom is emerging over the lack of school choice for blacks. Pastor Richard L. Davis, co-founder of Clergy for Education Options, wrote in the Augusta Chronicle on July 15, “The truth about South Carolina education is this – if you have resources, you have choices. If you do not, your children will remain trapped in failing schools and there is not a thing you can do about it. And the sad truth is that the current system is far more likely to shortchange minority children than white children. More whites live in better neighborhoods than blacks, and as a consequence black children attend our state's worst public schools.”

Davis noted further, “We are out of time for this generation. Too many children are lost in failing schools and we cannot afford to wait until the politicians in Columbia decide how to fix those schools from the top-down – Soviet Union command style. Black families want the same option to take charge of their children's education as so many white families have. The government needs to get out of the way and let us do it. Our children do not deserve to be failed any longer.”

The late Milton Friedman said in his last major public appearance in May of 2006, “We have schools choosing the students instead of the students choosing the schools.”

Until we recognize and change the backward nature of this relationship, education in Nevada and America will be unnecessarily expensive and substandard.

In the end, this is not about vouchers or charter schools. It is about students and giving non-wealthy parents the choice to decide what’s best for them and their children.

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was first published in the September 2007 issue of the Nevada Business Journal.