School choice helps those best who have least

Writing from Miami, Florida

An article in the March 2, 2006 Wall Street Journal by Katherine Kersten of the Minneapolis Star Tribune tells of the large numbers of African-American families in Minneapolis who send their children to charter schools or to schools in other districts, thanks to Minnesota law that allows district-crossing.

The families in Minneapolis have ample incentive to look elsewhere for schools. “Last year, only 28% of black eighth-graders in the Minneapolis public schools passed the state’s basic skills math test; 47% passed the reading test. … Today, this tradition of choice is providing a ticket out for kids in the gritty, mostly black neighborhoods of north and south- central Minneapolis.”

Does this choice work? Are parents pleased? “At Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 school that is 99% black and two-thirds low income, students wear uniforms, focus on character, and achieve substantially higher test scores than district schools with similar demographics.” This is a school that was founded in 1992 in the home of its founders, showing that it doesn’t take a lot of money to start a good school.

My advocacy of school choice has been criticized. Some people tell me that parents, especially those with little education, will not be able to judge the merits of a school. People tell me that some parents are incapable of making a wise, informed choice, and that someone else must do it for them. Besides being condescending, it is simply wrong:

The city’s experience should lead such states to reconsider the benefits of expansive school choice. Conventional wisdom holds that middle-class parents take an interest in their children’s education, while low-income and minority parents lack the drive and savvy necessary. The black exodus here demonstrates that, when the walls are torn down, poor, black parents will do what it takes to find the best schools for their kids.

One has to be quite confident — arrogant, I would say — to deny parents the choice of where to send their children to school, especially when the choice forced upon parents is to compel children to attend our present schools with their history of poor performance.

Well-to-do families have school choice. They can afford private school tuition, or they can afford to move to cities or neighborhoods where the schools are better. In most places, poor families don’t have this choice. What is it that prevents our politicians, education bureaucrats, and school boards from realizing this, and doing something to truly help those who need it most?


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