Politics, Markets and America’s Schools

The title of this column is taken from the important and best selling book written by John Chubb and Terry Moe advancing market-based solutions aimed at achieving genuine school reform. The fact that their book was published in 1990 means that this column could’ve also been titled –

“The failure of the Republican Party during the past 18 years.”

First, a note about the politics of this failure.

This column has spent a lot of time outlining the kind of practical changes required from elected Republicans as well as from the party organization itself. All the commentary and analysis doesn’t do any good if we don’t see enough new behavior from the old players or enough new people entering the game.

General George Patton knew what it was going to take in World War II to defeat the German war machine when it came to both strategy and tactics – but he also knew that personnel was the key. He spoke of the absolute need for the “vitalizing spark, intangible, yet as evident as the lightning; the warrior soul.”

We need a few political Pattons, since it’s going to be about as easy to defeat the public school behemoth today as it was the German army back then. Victory will require courageous, principled, Patton-like visionary leadership.

The children who were born the year that Chubb and Moe’s book was published are now old enough to be starting college this fall. Many of our elected Republican leaders in the country have been in office most or many of the years of those kids’ lives.

Next, a note about markets and America’s schools.

It’s a sad indictment of our current leadership that the sentences that opened the foreword of Chubb and Moe’s book still applies today:

“By most accounts, the American education system is not working well. Children appear to be learning less in school today than they did a generation ago.”

In the foreword the question is posed:

“How can government work so hard to improve schools yet make so little progress?”

And answered:

“In this book, [the authors] argue that government has not solved the education problem because government is the problem…

The nation’s educational problem, then, is an institutional problem. To overcome it, the authors recommend a new system of public education based on fundamentally new institutions. They propose a shift away from a system of schools controlled directly by government-through politics and bureaucracy-to a system of indirect control that relies on markets and parental choice.”

There is no question that the national school reform movement is alive, well, and growing.

The researchers, advocates and think tanks are doing their part, and here and there ground has been gained. The missing link in achieving real school reform continues to be state legislators and members of Congress from sea to shining sea who don’t use their bully pulpit or the power of their office.

The fact that it has not isn’t due to the work of those without power – the researchers and advocates, but rather, the responsibility for the failure belongs to those who do hold power – our elected officials.

I’ll do my part to make sure people understand the legacy of our elected officials when it comes to the quality and cost of the public schools, as well as the availability of school choice. As of July 2008, not enough elected Republicans have possessed the kind of “vitalizing spark” necessary to get the job done.

Not long ago I titled a piece, “Political fighters wanted.” If America’s children are ever going to get the kind of schools they deserve, a few political Pattons will have to step up – men and women who understand the importance of the “warrior soul.”

For those who think such people don’t exist, two things.

First, Lisa Snell, who is the director of education at the Reason Foundation, wrote the following in “Will a Democrat Please Stand Up? Looking for someone to help kids stuck in California’s failing schools,”:

“Nationwide, there are now 24 school choice programs in 15 states. In 2008 new choice programs have been enacted in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana . And school choice is increasingly becoming a bipartisan issue, with three quarters of legislative victories over the past two years resulting because of Democratic support.”

Second, what follows next is an excerpt from an article by Jim Wooten from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution from back in May:

Saving the best for last, Gov. Sonny Perdue “sealed his legacy as one of America’s foremost ‘education governors’ ” last week.

That’s the view of Lori Drummer, director of state projects for the Washington-based Alliance for School Choice, the nation’s largest nonprofit promoting school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs. “Georgia is now a national leader in a school choice movement that is gaining momentum,” she said.

The reason for her exuberance? On the final day allotted to deal with legislation passed by this year’s General Assembly, Perdue signed a bill authored by State Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn) that will assist families, like those poor souls in Clayton County whose children are held hostage by a system in turmoil.

The bill Perdue signed will allow corporations and individuals to get tax credits for donations to organizations that give scholarships to parents who want to put their children in better schools.

With two other pieces of education legislation signed earlier, this session — the squabbling notwithstanding — will go down as one of the most productive in two important areas since the GOP took control: education and health care. The bills signed earlier — one part of the governor’s agenda and the other authored by State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) — completed an education-reform trifecta.

The bill that grew out of an education commission the governor appointed gives local systems freedom from state regulations in return for promises to produce results in areas such as dropout reductions. It eliminates excuses and the tendency of local boards and superintendents to blame somebody else, usually the state, for their failure to educate.

The Jones bill promotes public school choice and establishes the important principle that the money follows the child.

The education trifecta this year had a number of heroes…

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Click here for information about the book “Politics, Markets & America’s Schools.”