My View: education crisis is America’s new civil rights crisis

schoolchoiceImagine if today–in 2013–a group of politicians pulled a George Wallace and stood in a doorway blocking certain students from entering a schoolhouse due to their race and/or societal class.

The outcry against such an act would be heard sea to shining sea with shouts of condemnation so loud they would make an 80s rock concert sound like a harpsichord recital.  The politicians behind it would be excoriated and forced out of public life forever–and rightfully so.

Thankfully the bad old days of racial segregation in public schools are long gone, and students of any race, religion and background have full access to public schools.

However, access to the schoolhouse building does not guarantee access to education–that is, the kind of education students need to at the very least be able to provide for themselves and their families as they enter adulthood.

It is no secret that many of our nation’s schools are failing their students.  The statistics speak for themselves.  But a closer look at those figures, as well as basic observation reveals that those suffering the most are pretty much the same who were denied entry to the schoolhouse in the 1960s.

Many would point the finger at income inequality, nuclear family disintegration, prejudicial barriers, historical hardships, or a combination thereof.  I mean, what else could explain that public schools in more affluent white areas outperform their counterparts in minority, less affluent areas and inner cities, especially when in most cases, they receive similar levels of funding from government?

However, asserting those are the reasons for overall education inequality essentially lays the blame on the students and their circumstances rather than on the schools and their administrators and teachers.

School choice has, in my view successfully challenged this axiom, and placed the onus where it belongs: on the schools (and those who operate them).

For years I have been a school choice proponent because I believe that competition among schools and school systems increases quality and efficiency just as it does in the free market.

A few jobs ago, I was the legislative aide to the Florida State Representative that sponsored and shepherded several of Former Governor Jeb Bush’s education reforms through the Florida House of Representatives.  In that capacity, I learned a great deal about school choice and the quantifiable gains students make through it.  But it never really impacted me on a personal level until last month.

Last month I was graciously invited to a school choice conference in Milwaukee by the Franklin Center for Public and Government Accountability. As part of the two-day event, we toured two schools, the idea of which initially did not appeal to me.

After the tour, however, I can safely say it was the highlight of the trip (after the Milwaukee beer and bratwursts, of course).

The school that tugged at me emotionally and left the most lasting impression was the aptly-named Hope Christian High School.

Located in a predominantly black neighborhood in northern Milwaukee, the school is private and accepts vouchers. Although it is a Christian school, it is able to accept taxpayer-funded vouchers after legal challenges to stop it were settled a few years ago. The only condition is that parents may opt their kids out of religious courses, which according to the headmaster, has happened less than half a dozen times.

In 2012, the school’s student body was 100% African-American and split almost evenly among boys and girls. Despite national figures showing African-American students disproportionately performing below other groups, Hope Christian High School boasted a 100% college admission from its 2012 and 2013 graduating classes.  As of last month, its 2014 class was well on its way to achieving 100% college admission.  Here is a good summary of other results.

hope5Everywhere one turns, there is effective positive reinforcement for the students, which comes from results, not just because. For example, a large wall in the school’s main corridor is adorned with the names and faces of all the seniors who have been accepted to college. Each time a student is accepted to a college, his or her picture with the acceptance letter in hand is displayed up on the wall; those who get accepted to multiple schools get multiple pictures and accolades.

Other walls and bulletin boards colorfully advertise GPA, SAT/ACT, community service and other such eligibility requirements for various colleges, which serves as a constant reminder for the students that their goals are–with effort–well within their reach.

But academic excellence is not all that is taught. Character, proper manners and and a sense of hope2elegance, decorum and eloquence are instilled, which are all eventually necessary for lasting success in most areas of life. Their uniforms consist of starched shirts, plaid skirts for girls and navy blazers for boys.

There is no “personal expression” foolishness or other sorts of distractions via ridiculous, suggestive or flashy name brand attire at this school. On certain days, however, seniors are permitted to wear a team jersey for the college they have been accepted to. #EffectivePositiveReinforcement.

Make no mistake. If most of these students were stuck in the failing schools assigned to them, their lives would be (and likely end up) totally different.

And that brings me back to the civil rights issue.

Civil rights is at least in part about affording people equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and advance themselves. If large segments of our population are being deprived that opportunity due to inferior schools and education, something should be done about it.

And something is being done about it. More and more states are adopting reforms that allow parents more options than the neighborhood public school their kids would otherwise have to attend. It gives parents hope for their kids’ future. I shudder to think where most of those Hope Christian High School students would be If it wasn’t for Wisconsin’s voucher system.

But despite the many successes of school choice reforms, which includes massive anecdotal evidence from the very students that have benefited, there are bureaucrats, administrators, unions, and the politicians beholden to them that stand in the way of many of these liberating reforms.

It stands to reason that the more options parents have, the less power the establishment education system has, not to mention the added pressure to step up its game.  As such, their opposition to these reforms in most cases illustrates that it’s not about the children, but about preserving power, political influence, and their own jobs.

I’m sure the preservation of those very things were motivating factors for the segregationists, too.


**UPDATE: 3/18/2014**

imageHope Christian School has announced that its senior class has attained a 100% college acceptance rate for the third consecutive year, and has been offered a combined $2million in scholarships.