Earlier this week, columnist Bill Crawford penned a piece arguing that school choice proposals authored in recent legislative sessions are not conservative because they represent a “new entitlement.” Instead, Crawford favors publicly funded Pre-K as the best fix for Mississippi’s education woes.
Here’s why he’s wrong.
To be a new entitlement the Legislature would have to appropriate more money for school choice than it already does for K-12 education. Yet school choice does not require more money – it simply proposes that taxpayers get more bang for their buck with existing funds.
Choice proposals transfer decision-making power to parents and subscribe to the conservative principle that people closest to a problem are the best people to fix it.
Many happily choose traditional public schools, but that choice is largely reserved for those who can afford it. Low-income families who lack the resources to move to neighborhoods with better schools or pay for private school tuition are often trapped in a school someone else chose for them.
School choice levels the playing field, promoting equality of opportunity for all.
What could be more appealing to political conservatives…or liberals…than that?
School choice also introduces a healthy dose of competition into a system with all the problems of a monopoly, namely that overwhelmed operators can get away with offering a mediocre, poor, or even abysmal education because many of their customers can’t go elsewhere.
Crawford argues that increased funding won’t fix public education. On this point we agree. This debate is all about who can spend tax dollars already earmarked for your child’s education more thoughtfully – you or someone tasked with serving every child? About who deserves the freedom to pivot and make a different choice when necessary – you or someone who doesn’t know your child at all?
The idea that public school students will lose in a competitive environment is not only ludicrous but handily disproven by the evidence. An expansive body of gold standard empirical research demonstrates that school choice programs not only benefit the students who opt out of public school, but also those students who stay.
School choice programs across the nation and here in Mississippi are producing more satisfied parents, more successful students, and higher expectations for all schools, both private and public. Yes, students perform better academically, but they also persist and graduate at higher rates, find good jobs, and stay out of prison.
For them, the American dream looks attainable. Why not give all students the same hope, regardless of socioeconomic status or zip code?
Furthermore, in a choice-friendly environment, everyone – students, parents, administrators, teachers, and innovators – benefits from the increased interest in quality and focus on true accountability.
Now, what about Crawford’s preference for public Pre-K? Whether or not you agree with his claims about its advantages, one fact remains: Creating a public Pre-K program in Mississippi would cost millions and millions of new tax dollars while ignoring altogether the issues plaguing K-12 public education. And if that’s not a new entitlement, I don’t know what is.
School choice is not a silver bullet, but it offers the most promise for the least money and the least amount of effort. It relies on the money, decisionmakers, entrepreneurial spirit, and market forces already in place and has the potential to make a difference in the lives of young Americans from day one.
» GRANT CALLEN is the Founder and President of Empower Mississippi, an independent, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to changing laws that limit opportunity so Mississippians can flourish.
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