The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published by Grand Junction Free Press.
While President Obama delivered the State of the Union address in the District of Columbia, pundit and author Michelle Malkin discussed school choice at Vanguard charter school in Colorado Springs. They had rather different ideas about the state of American education and how to improve it.
Obama pointed out that, even though many American schools lag in graduation rates and math and science outcomes, some politically operated schools perform relatively well. Obama mentioned Bruce Randolph school in Denver, where community involvement and administrative reforms dramatically improved performance in recent years.
Obama believes federal programs play a central role in the functioning of American schools. The president looks for marginal reforms within the context of the traditional public school system.
Malkin, whose mother taught in New Jersey public schools, moved to Colorado largely because of the strong charter system here. She told the crowd at Vanguard, "I am your neighbor, and I'm so proud to be a resident of Colorado Springs. But more importantly, [I am] an incredibly fortunate beneficiary of people's commitment to excellence in education here in this city."
Malkin painted a disturbing portrait of American education, saying, "One in ten high schools in America is a 'drop out factory.'" Mind-crushing fads sweep through many of the rest. Despite some noteworthy exceptions, generally American schools suffer stagnant test scores even as their funding soars. Malkin said the typical leftist approach of throwing more money at education has bought us "cash for education clunkers."
In response to Obama's line about our "Sputnik moment," a reference to the 1957 Soviet space launch, Malkin said the real similarity between us and the Soviets is that "we still have a Soviet-style, government-run schools monopoly." So what do we do about it?
Many Colorado parents have turned to charter schools, still funded by taxpayers and governed by politicians but granted relatively more autonomy. Parents here can choose among all public schools relatively easily.
But the fundamental barrier to meaningful choice in education is that parents are forced to finance public schools. If they choose a private school, they must pay double: once for the public school they do not use, and once for the private school.
That is the reason why many conservatives, notably the late economist Milton Friedman, advocate vouchers. Recently the Douglas County school board caused a commotion by promising (or, as the left would put it, threatening) to study voucher programs.
A voucher allows a parent to direct a portion of the school tax funds to any school that qualifies under the program. The basic problem with vouchers is that they spend tax money on otherwise private schools, which might teach controversial ideas like religion.
An alternative to vouchers is a tax credit for education. This allows parents to enroll their child in any qualifying school and reduce their state tax burden by an amount determined by law. A more expansive tax credit allows any taxpayer to save on taxes by funding a scholarship for any child. This year Republican legislators Spencer Swalm and Kevin Lundberg introduced Bill 1048 to create such tax credits.
We propose giving taxpayers even more choice. Each taxpayer pays a certain amount for education through various taxes. Whatever that amount is, the taxpayer should be able to decide where that money goes. A taxpayer could decide to direct all the money to a single private school, a single public school, or any combination of schools.
Our plan would give people the incentive to evaluate schools and direct their money to wherever they think it will be spent most effectively.
For example, we are outraged that tax dollars support the Denver Green School, which indoctrinates children into the cult of environmentalism. As the Denver Post recently reported, teachers at this school led children in creating a power-point presentation condemning energy use. (Nevermind the fact that the presentation consumed electricity; this cult hardly values consistency.)
Under our proposal, those who wish to finance the leftist indoctrination of children could do so, while the rest of us could direct our resources to schools that teach children things like math and history.
Note that our proposal does not really give the taxpayer full choice over his or her resources. Even our plan falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.
The left recoils at the very mention of real liberty. Even legislation allowing taxpayers to direct all their school-related taxes to the schools of their choice would give the teachers' unions heart palpitations.
Nevertheless, we'll go ahead and say it: each individual has the right to control his own earnings, and he should be able to fund any school he wishes, or no school at all. Call it a Liberty Moment.