Thursday, December 16, 2010

A lost decade in education

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:
History is usually made by a small group of passionate people. On Dec. 7, history was made by a small group of parents in Compton, Calif.

Their children attend McKinley Elementary School - a school that has been defined as failing for the past 10 years. Using a new power known as the "parent trigger," which I fought for and state legislators approved last year, these Compton parents banded together to demand change. The legislation allows parents of students at troubled schools to demand such significant reforms as closing a school, replacing a school's management or most of its staff, or reorganizing a school into a charter, if 51 percent of parents sign a petition.

McKinley Elementary is being reorganized and will soon be transformed into a charter school run by Celerity Educational Group, which is successfully operating three other schools in California.
Schwarzenegger may think he's trumpeting a success story, and perhaps he is, but that story remains to be written. What I hear, instead, is an indictment -- no, a confession, an admission of guilt that for at least 10 years California has knowingly allowed this school to fail without taking corrective action. How many kids have been robbed of their futures in that time?

Consider the remedies only now being made available to the victims of McKinley Elementary: replacement of the school's management and staff, reorganization into a charter school. Now consider what things would look like if, instead of being herded through a government-run monopoly, parents were given real choices in an educational marketplace.

To begin with, the failures at McKinley would have been addressed a decade ago. A failing school remains a tragedy only as long as we force our kids to attend it. Had we allowed parents to choose where they send their kids -- the way we allow them to choose where they shop for groceries or fill their gas tanks -- McKinley would have been vacant as soon as parents learned there was a better product down the road. The failing school would be forced to reform or shut down (very likely with a new school, under new management, moving in to fill the vacuum). In any event, in the face of competition failure is not an option for very long, and a lost decade could have been averted.

The lesson, as always, is that, if given choices, people do a much better job of looking out for their own interests than any government can ever do. Until we break free from the government monopoly on education, we will continue to condemn millions of children to bleak, stunted futures. No amount of money or reform is enough to improve a system that doesn't need to succeed to survive.

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