America's lesson in educational freedom
Reformers in the UK should take heart from what national school choice week has achieved in the States
Yesterday the United States celebrated more than the end of the football season. Yesterday marked the end of national school choice week. From January 27th to the 3rd of February more than 200 organisations and tens of thousands of people from all walks of life held 3600 events across all fifty states celebrating and advocating choice in education.
Over the past few decades the US, like the UK, has faced stagnant or even declining standards in its state education system. Yet a broader movement has arisen, demanding change.
This was on full display during the last week as charter schools, voucher programmes, home schooling, and online education were all celebrated as ways of providing American children with new opportunities, giving parents a genuine choice rather than having their children’s education at the mercy of politicians and the teachers’ unions.
The benefits of choice are becoming more apparent with each year that passes and every new experiment tried. Since 2004 Washington D.C has given 3,700 scholarships for private schooling to children from low income households, worth $7,500 each. This, in terms of price, compares favourably with the roughly $28,000 spent per pupil in D.C state schools.
But the academic results were even more remarkable. The graduation rate among the children who did not participate in the voucher program was 70 percent; the graduation rate among those who participated in the program was 90 percent.
It is not only in the realm of standard education that choice is bringing beneficial results. In Florida, 93 percent of parents who participated in the McKay scholarship program (a voucher program for children with special needs) reported being satisfied with their child’s school; only 33 percent of parents of special needs children enrolled in state schools reported being satisfied.
Yet, despite these success stories, many special interest groups, such as the teachers’ unions and the politicians they fund, will do all they can to prevent fundamental change to the education system.
Fortunately, the impetus for change is reaching a tipping point. Only 22 percent of Americans believe teachers’ unions have a positive effect on schools and public support for school voucher programs has dramatically increased.
In the UK, we see the National Union of Teachers (NUT) opposing the development of free schools and the likes of Alan Bennet calling for the abolition of private schools. We see politicians such as Diane Abbot advocating state comprehensive education for her constituents then sending her son to a private school. More recently, we see Nick Clegg, a product himself of private school, admitting he may seek private education for his eldest, despite a career’s worth of noises to the contrary; ‘generous with other people’s money’ becomes ‘egalitarian with other people’s children’.
If the government decides it is going to tax the population to cover education for every child, it does not necessarily follow that the state must set up and run the schools, employ the teachers, and decide which school the children should attend.
We all know that the rich have choices when it comes to education; why should the government decide which is the best school and what is the best type of education for the rest?
Many parents despair that they do not have the bank balance – or indeed the five bedroom-detached in the right post code – to give their children the opportunities for the best start in life. But it is inspirational to see a growing movement of ordinary parents, educators and citizens who refuse to accept that what the state provides is their only option.
Children are first and foremost the responsibility of their parents, and it is their parents – who know them better and care more about them than anyone else – who are best placed to decide what is in their best interests, not politicians in a distant capital.
Reformers in the UK should take heart from what national school choice week has achieved in the States and continue their valiant battle in the face of opposition from the likes of the Labour party, the NUT, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.
Incremental progress is being made; the battle is far from lost. And as history so often shows, a few dedicated groups of individuals with a good cause can make a mockery of the odds.
Guy Bentley is a Libertarian blogger and a former editorial assistant at the Commentator
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