Skip to content

Op-Ed by Sens. Alexander, Paul, Lee, Scott, McConnell: "School Choice: Part of the Solution to Our Broken Education System"

By Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Tim Scott, Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander

One of the most important things we do as a society is educate our kids. Opportunity in education is the gateway to opportunity everywhere else -- in our economy, in our society and in our democracy.

All children, no matter who they are or where they live, deserve an equal chance to develop their skills and intellect. But today in America, too many kids don't get that chance.

We have a system in which politicians and bureaucrats have too much control, parents have too little, and students' needs get lost in the shuffle. Big Government, even at its best, is inherently inefficient, and too easily distracted from core missions by special interests.

Every decision made by bureaucrats in Washington is a decision taken from the people who actually educate -- principals, teachers, and especially parents. And as usual, those most vulnerable to the unintended consequences of bad education policy are those most vulnerable, period -- the poor, the disconnected, and most of all, their children.

Where the current system hasn't worked -- school choice has.

In a growing number of school systems throughout the country, voucher and charter school programs that allow public education dollars to follow the student to the school of their parents' choosing are greatly improving student performance and giving children an opportunity for a better life. Voucher programs provide scholarships that let students enroll in private schools, while charter school programs allow educators to create public schools of choice free from the constraints of school district bureaucracies.

Edna is a common example. A fifth-grader growing up in Milwaukee, Edna couldn't even speak English. Through a state voucher program, she attended private school, a Catholic high school, went on to college and eventually got a job as a patent engineer for a law firm. Her middle school principal said, "Edna is a miracle, and we couldn't have done it without school choice."

Edna was one of the first voucher students in the country. Tried and tested successfully for two decades now, school choice programs have offered hope to thousands of children and families in underprivileged communities.

Why is it that in this day and age, such children remain the exception, and not the rule? Why, in any country, let alone America, should equal opportunity depend on the bounce of a lottery ball?

A recent evaluation of the school choice program in Washington, D.C. found that using a voucher to attend a private school significantly improved students' chances of graduating from high school, increasing graduation rates by 21 percentage points.

School choice is a way out of the poverty cycle for low-income families.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2010, 2,000 of the nation's 20,000 high schools produce roughly 50 percent of all dropouts, and African-American children have a 50/50 chance of having to attend one of these so-called "dropout factories."

According to the Census Bureau, in 2011 a typical dropout over age 25 earned just $18,796 while a typical high school graduate without a bachelor’s degree earned $26,699—a full 42 percent more. A high school graduate who goes on to earn a bachelor’s degree will earn more than 150 percent more, on average, then a high-school dropout.

Choice breeds competition -- which is the best way to improve schools. It creates a powerful incentive for schools to get better, while at the same time creating much-needed options for children trapped in less than satisfactory schools. That is exactly what we see when public charter schools are allowed to expand.

In Washington, D.C., the 41 percent of students who attend charter schools learn the equivalent of 72 days more in reading and 101 days more in math each year than similar students attending district schools, according to a Stanford University study.

In short, school choice has given poor, mostly minority families the hope that government has not. Young boys and girls, who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to excel, have become successful men and women leaders in their communities--due to receiving a better education than they otherwise would have.

Despite its overwhelming success -- and basic justice -- many bureaucrats defend their broken status quo, and see school choice not as an opportunity, but as a threat. Our children deserve better than a system that puts bureaucrats' wants before students' needs. Parents deserve better than being forced to pay for policies that trap their own children in failing schools, while denying them the equal educational opportunities that better paid politicians and bureaucrats enjoy.

Great schools are born in communities, not bureaucracies. At Boys Latin in Philadelphia, kids are taught Latin for four years. They are taught discipline and citizenship. This year, over 95 percent of their graduates will go on to college.

The current 20th century, centralized bureaucratic model has dropped American education to 17th in the world, even as the international economy turns toward technologies and industries that depend of education more than ever before in human history.

We need a new direction. To succeed globally, we need to educate locally.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education." Dr. King's definition of "true education" is reflected in the types of young men and women that parent-driven, locally controlled school choice continues to produce.

It's the student's job to work hard to achieve their hopes and dreams. It's our duty to give them every possible opportunity to achieve them.

Our education system is broken. School choice is an important part of the solution.