Guest Column: Choice is the Way to Save Our Schools

Kent Grusendorf at The Texas Tribune Festival on September 22, 2012.
Kent Grusendorf at The Texas Tribune Festival on September 22, 2012.

School Choice is a moral imperative. The education of one’s child is the most important decision parents will make affecting their child’s future and success in life. Thankfully, in Texas we have some great political leaders like Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Sen. Dan Patrick who want to empower parents with the freedom to make that critical decision for their children.

Every Texan has the freedom to buy the car they want and shop at the supermarket they wish, yet only the rich have choice regarding the education of their children. Why in a free society do we deny parents the right to school choice? This just does not seem to be fair, nor is it equitable.

Education should be about kids; unfortunately, many people are more protective of the ‘institution of education’ than of student education. I personally witnessed this during 13 weeks of the school finance trial. Much evidence was presented to the court regarding the interest of schools and school personnel. Many testified that ‘this law’ or ‘that rule’ were in place due to adult interest, not student interest.

That is the nature of a politically driven system. As a school union leader once said: “Kids don’t vote.”

The sad fact is that many of the restrictions imposed upon our education system actually harm rank and file teachers as well as students. Expert witnesses for the school districts, for the state, and for the efficiency interveners agreed, under oath, that teacher pay would increase if school choice were implemented.

Our great teachers are grossly underpaid. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and all other professionals earn more than teachers, not because of union power, nor because of political power, but instead because of market forces. Competition for good professionals drives up earnings. Unfortunately in the public school monopsony, earnings can only be increased through political action.

Great teachers should be able to earn at least $150,000 a year or more. They should be able to earn as much as lawyers, dentists, or CPAs. Unfortunately, the defenders of the status quo do not want teachers to recognize that they would earn more with choice, but it’s true. A school district does not pay the losing coach the same as a winning coach. If more schools were in the market and recruiting teachers, teachers would earn more money and have better working conditions.

The mantra of school choice opponents is: Save our Schools. In fact, the best way to save our schools would be to implement school choice. Evidence from places where school choice has been tried indicates that the public schools actually improve when students have a choice. That is consistent with all know economic research. When customers have a choice, vendors try harder to meet customer needs.

Choice will not harm public education. Do you care whether you go to a private or public hospital? No — you just want the best health care for your needs. It amazes me how little faith school leaders have in themselves and their schools. They assume that given a choice, all the students will leave. That is not a good commentary on their confidence.

In Milwaukee, where school choice has been in place for several decades, only about 25% of the eligible students participate in the program. Texas public schools now have about five million students, and a student growth rate of about two percent per year. If school choice were implemented in Texas, the best estimates are that participation would approximately offset enrollment growth Therefore, even with a full choice program in place, our public schools would still have about 5 million students enrolled a decade later. 

School choice is an issue of freedom, liberty, and civil rights. Choice would empower parents to select the best schools for their children and would empower teachers to earn more. Our failing schools would improve. We must stop using students and teachers as pawns to protect the status quo.

Everyone wants to save our schools. But, more importantly we want to Save Our Students! The constitutional purpose of the education clause in the Texas Constitution is to protect the “liberties and rights” of the people. Liberty requires freedom of choice!

Kent Grusendorf is a former state representative.