by Gov. Bobby Jindal
Every child in America deserves a great education. Sounds great. Put it on a bumper sticker, and everyone will agree with it and honk their approval. Kind of like saying we should put a great teacher in every classroom. Everyone agrees with it, until it comes time to do it by changing tenure and compensation policies to reward effectiveness over seniority. Everyone agrees that every child in America deserves an equal opportunity in education, until you actually ask them to implement policies that will make that true.
Many families can help their kids get a good education by moving to an area with good public schools, or by sending their kids to a private school. The reality though is that many families cannot afford to move and are unable to pay for private school. No child should have his or her potential shortchanged because his or her parents can’t afford to move to another town or drive their child across town to find a better option. We know that our children are unique. They learn differently and they need different things. Yet, our system is set up so that we treat students all the same.
Today, we say to parents “tough luck” if you happen to live where there aren’t a lot of options. We say “tough luck” if you can’t afford to pay to send your child to a private school. The current system is unacceptable and unfair. Parents and kids should not be trapped in a failing school because of their zip code, income, gender or color. Every child has a right to an excellent education. That’s the promise of America.
We know parents know their children best, yet we have a system that decides what’s best for them, rather than empowering parents to make a choice. Our children do not have time to wait. They only grow up once and they have one shot to receive a quality education. We can’t wait for another generation of students to graduate from high school unprepared for the workforce and higher education – or to drop out before they even get there. We must empower parents, who know their children better than bureaucrats sitting in state capitals or Washington, D.C., and who make choices for their children every day.
The coalition of the status quo will fight tooth and nail against giving up its monopoly and opening the door to choice and competition. They will say choice hurts teachers and hurts public education. They will do whatever it takes to say reform is a bad idea. They will argue for the status quo. Indeed, one Louisiana teachers union leader said that poor parents “have no clue” when it comes to making educational choices for their children. That type of rhetoric is insulting to parents demanding better schools. This elitist, top-down, arrogant mentality has stifled public education in our country for too long. School choice is not about pitting school boards versus charter schools or teachers unions versus parents. This is about making sure all parents have an equal opportunity to get a quality education for their children.
Dollars should follow the child, instead of forcing the child to follow the dollars. Students should be allowed to attend the school that best meets their needs, whether that is a traditional public school, a charter school, a private school, a parochial school, an online school, a dual enrollment program, or whatever. Also, course choices for students in public schools should be expanded by allowing a variety of high quality content providers, including school districts, virtual schools, colleges and universities, and businesses with training programs to participate.
Empowering parents also means giving parents more levers to effect change in their schools. Community organizations, nonprofits, universities, and other local entities should be vetted and approved to become charter authorizers. They can work directly with charter operators and maintain local control of charter schools in their communities, while also overcoming the natural reluctance of many local school boards to approve a competitor. Parents whose children are at failing schools should also have a trigger to effect change on that school more quickly, having the ability to vote to convert the school into a charter or otherwise replace management.
We must open up the market to good ideas and allow the entrepreneurs and innovators to make them work. Some of these innovators are working in our districts today, some are in our charter schools, and some have not yet entered the market. We know that educating our students is difficult work and we need all the help and smart ideas we can recruit to get the job done.
We have seen firsthand in Louisiana the transformative power of empowering parents. Before Katrina, as a writer for the AP noted, “In the dismal gallery of failing urban school systems, New Orleans may be the biggest horror of them all.” A valedictorian failed her graduate exit exam five times and was unable to attend her graduation ceremony, two-thirds of the schools failed to meet the state’s performance standard, and more than 20 public school officials were indicted on various counts of fraud and corruption. Today, nearly 80 percent of New Orleans kids attend charter schools, with national groups like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and local entities competing for students. Though there is still more work to be done, the percentage of students in New Orleans that are reading and doing math at grade level has more than doubled in the last five years.
Given how important parental involvement is to student achievement, it just makes sense to empower parents and get them more engaged. Schools still have to be held accountable for teaching our students, but parents play a role too. The parent is a child’s first teacher and high quality education is a team effort. As we expand our definition of who provides publicly funded education—traditional schools, charter schools, private schools, virtual schools, or colleges and universities—we need to engage our parents in this important reform.
Local school leaders working with engaged parents know their communities and their students better than folks in Washington, DC, and we shouldn’t be forcing a one-size-fits-all system on them. Just like each teacher is unique and each student is unique, each school and each school system is unique, whether that be a traditional school, a network of charters, or a private school. If we give school leaders the ability to innovate, then we can improve student achievement at a quicker pace. We have to give school districts the opportunity to compete.
We piloted a school choice program in New Orleans, which we are now expanding into a statewide program, and found that students did better academically while average tuition costs saved taxpayers thousands of dollars per student. Washington, D.C. has for years had a similar program called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, where over 90% of participants would otherwise be attending a School in Need of Reform and over 90% of parents are satisfied with their children’s school. Unfortunately, President Obama has chosen his union supporters over these students and their educational needs, and has repeatedly fought against this program.
Nationally, we have doubled per student spending over the last forty years, yet student achievement has stayed flat. The truth is that we know it’s not about how much money we spend, but rather how we spend it. To paraphrase, Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same failed things over and over again, and expecting a different result. We need to fund the things that work and the people that can get the job done, and stop sending good money after bad to the programs that don’t work.
The bottom line is that our kids only grow up once and we cannot wait for the system to reform itself. It’s about more than our kids succeeding inside the classroom; it’s about them succeeding in life. Look at any study about healthcare outcomes, incarceration rates, income levels – and it all comes back to education.
Throughout the fight to give parents more choices, there are going to be a lot of accusations made and a lot of name-calling, but through it all remember why we are in this fight – it’s to give our kids a world class education. Our kids deserve an opportunity to succeed, and it’s a basic right that everyone should be afforded in America. We live in an aspirational society and the opportunity to receive a quality education is part of the American Dream. The time to act is now.
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