School choice puts focus on each student

February 16, 2014 4:31PM

Dr. Harold Black, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and Beacon senior fellow, pens an op-ed in support of school choice. This article originally appeared in Saturday’s Knoxville News Sentinel. by Dr. Harold Black On Jan. 28 a school choice rally was held in Nashville. Caravans from Memphis came to show support. Earlier some of these parents had camped out in sub-zero weather at Shelby Country School District headquarters to register their children in optional schools designed to meet a child’s specialized interest and needs. Speaker Rev. Dwight Montgomery, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Memphis chapter president, asked: “They use public funds to bail corporations out. So what’s wrong with bailing our children out?” Why not indeed? Little of the dialogue regarding K-12 has been centered on our children. Rather, the focus has been on curriculum, facilities and increased funding. While these are important, they are not more important than an analysis of what is best for parents and their children. It actually may be more cost efficient to let parents avail themselves of opportunity scholarships than to continue increasing funding to failing schools. A basic axiom of economics is that people receive better, and in many cases cheaper, goods and services when markets are competitive. If a product is inferior and does not meet consumers’ standards, then it is forced out of the market. The continuing existence of a poor quality product generally means that the market is not characterized by competition and that consumers have no choices for substitute goods. As a result, economists note that the net well-being of consumers is reduced. There is perhaps no better example of that axiom than education in Tennessee. In East Tennessee parents have little choice where they can send their children to school. Private schools are not affordable for most families. As a consequence, parents are in essence forced to consume a product that they might otherwise reject. It’s time we put children first in the education reform dialogue. The best way to do this — and to ensure that every child has access to a quality education, regardless of his or her means — is to empower parents with school choice. Options like opportunity scholarships will empower parents to choose the best alternatives for their children, whether public, private, charter or homeschool. In so doing, the public school system will face competition that will compel it to improve its performance. Instead of funding schools and systems, we should be funding children. We already spend designated dollars on each child (in Knox County it’s roughly $8,500 per pupil), so let’s pin a portion of that money to each child’s backpack and let it follow him or her to the school that’s right for them. This approach corrects a major obstacle facing many Tennessee children: a one-size-fits-all approach. Every child is unique, but our education system treats them all the same. Children are zoned for schools based on their ZIP Code. The wishes of the parents and unique needs, skills and interests of their children are irrelevant in this process. Education is the most important factor of upward social mobility and lowers societal costs by preventing school dropouts. Most parents understand this and desire a better future for their children. The discussion in Nashville centers on the best approach to providing opportunity scholarships to tens of thousands of Tennessee children. Providing leadership on this important issue can ensure that we begin to view education through the proper lens — focusing on what is best for the child.  Harold Black is a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and a senior fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.