A mother wants to send her son to the best school in her neighborhood, but that school happens to be private. Does that make her a radical parent?
Of course not. We don’t call wanting the best school for one’s child “radical parenting.” We call it good parenting. Yet a simple policy that would enable a child’s parents to choose the school and teacher they think best is somehow allowed to be called “radical” by members of the educational and political establishment.
A forthcoming policy summit is being held to put these misconceptions to rest—and the idea of school choice will soon be set for a hearing in Illinois. The Rev. Senator James Meeks, chairman of the state senate education committee, has proposed that Illinois create a program to give parents a better choice of schools.
Giving families the ability to send their children to private schools – either by awarding a scholarship or a voucher – is indeed serious public policy, and it is working well whenever implemented.
The issue of school choice has been contentious since Chicago’s own Milton Friedman first popularized the concept of school vouchers more than fifty years ago. The concept is simple: allow education dollars to follow students to private schools if, in their parents’ judgment, that is where they’ll be safe and well taught. It’s controversial to some for the same reason it’s appealing to others: the practice of school choice shakes up the established order by giving parents newfound leverage and injecting competition into the public school system.
After decades of debate, the idea was finally enacted in Milwaukee in 1994. Several other cities and states have implemented similar policies (almost all of which give high priority to students from the neediest households). Since that time, a scholarly literature and a series of court decisions have amassed. They’ve shown repeatedly that school choice is working, especially for minority students, and that the programs pass Constitutional muster.
National experts on these topics will convene in Chicago to present the evidence to date at a February 5th summit to be hosted by the Illinois Policy Institute (details below). The goal of the event is straightforward – to present the facts about school choice.
Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation will discuss how private schools are working well for students who have been enabled, through school choice programs, to attend those schools. Competition for students is actually causing those students’ old public schools to improved, as will be discussed by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice. The Lexington Institute’s Don Soifer will discuss a matter especially relevant to Chicago – how school choice programs and private schools often provide students with a safer learning environment. Others will discuss issues related to the logistics and legality of school choice programs.
Rev. Meeks himself will give the keynote address.
Meeks, an admittedly unlikely supporter of school choice policies, broached the issue for the first time late last year, in an intense Chicago Tribune column:
Well, once again we have had to mourn the vicious murder of another Chicago Public Schools student with the September slaying of 16-year-old Derrion Albert… [Yet] we continue to miss the point of why violence persists among our youths and somehow think we are blameless…
For the first time in my personal and political career, I am exploring the idea of vouchers and charter schools to help facilitate choice and enhance academic performance. Why should we continue to make investments in a system that is bankrupt and weighed down with bureaucracy?
We must begin making decisions that are in the best interest of children… They say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We can no longer afford to have the blood of every child on our hands.
There can be no doubt, given these words, that Rev. Meeks is serious about school reform. And, as he and other presenters will discuss at the upcoming summit, school choice is serious policy addressing an issue with serious stakes.
“In Our Hands,” a summit on school choice and the future of public education in Illinois, will be hosted by the Illinois Policy Institute on Feb. 5 at 190 S. LaSalle in Chicago, Illinois. Event attendance is free, with lunch provided, though an RSVP is required.