If you're rich and your children are enrolled in failing public schools, you have available to you all the alternatives that money can buy—private schools, parochial schools, elite boarding schools and academies, even private tutors.
If, one the other hand, you're poor—or even middle class—your options are somewhat more limited. Not because you can't buy your way out of bad schools, but because the system is rigged against you.
In some places, reform-minded parents have worked with policy-makers and elected officials to close "the alternatives gap" by enacting reforms and establishing private scholarship funds but, for the most part, children who are trapped in failing schools have little choice but to stay where they are—or move to another school that is probably equally as bad.
Over the years, the teachers' unions, the education establishment, and the inner-city managerial class have engaged in a corrupt bargain with Democrats that puts the needs of parents and children second to the needs of the folks on the government payroll. In exchange for votes and other political support, the politicians have made children virtual prisoners of schools where they cannot learn.
Access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. Being from a poor family or being from a middle-class background should not condemn a child to a lifetime of ignorance, nor should it be allowed to deny them their shot at the American dream.
Fortunately, there are options increasingly available to parents who want better for their children. Charter schools—like those in Washington, D.C., New York City, and other major cities—parochial schools and even home schooling have made tremendous progress in changing the way the nation's children are learning. Scholarship programs, both public and private, are giving poor children from the inner city the same chance to attend the so-called privileged charter schools—like Washington's Sidwell Friends, where Barack and Michelle Obama send their daughters—as the children of the "one percenters."
These reforms, however, are only the beginning. The real key is the money, which currently flows to schools on a per pupil basis based on enrollment and other statistics. What the politicians and education policymakers need to do, rather than spend more money on public education, is spend those same dollars both smarter and on students rather than schools.
This means giving parents access to school vouchers, an idea the education establishment hates because it will take money out of their pockets by putting it in to the pockets of parents who will spend it with the needs of their own children in mind.
It's a way to inject market-based reforms into American's school systems. Parents will be able to vote with their dollars whether or not they approve of the kind of education their children are getting—or for that matter not getting—when they go to school
Recently, in the latest development on this issue, a unanimous Indiana State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of vouchers. The program, which is the most liberal in the nation, had been challenged on the grounds that, as the Associated Press reported, "the law primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools." Instead, it "accepted arguments that it gave families choice and allowed parents to determine where the money went".
The idea that vouchers violate the alleged constitutional requirement that church and state remain separate is a canard, crafted to put the best light on a bad argument. The education establishment does not want parents to be able to choose where their children go to school. If they could, broadly, it would create too much pressure to reform, to raise student performance. They would prefer to keep things just as they are, the needs of the children be damned.
Pro-voucher political leaders have hailed the decision as the beginning of a new day for children in Indiana. "The long standing goal of our team has been to provide every Hoosier family with outstanding education choices that best fit the needs of their children," Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said of the court's ruling.
"The Indiana State Teachers Association had filed suit over the program," the AP reported, "saying it drained money from public schools. Its attorney, John West, told the court in November that virtually all of the voucher money goes to schools whose primary purpose is to promote the teachings of their affiliated churches."
Bosma called the decision a clear "victory for the 9,400 low income students whose families have selected a school of choice through Indiana's education scholarship program. It is also a victory for every Hoosier that supports school choice as a means of making every traditional public, private, and charter school compete to give the very best education to their students. "
The Indiana case is an important one nationally, because so many families have the chance to participate in it. It's a model for the rest of the country to follow, even as Indiana legislators and Mike Pence, the state's new Republican governor, look for ways to expand it even further. When it comes to reform for the nation's schools, the future is now.