TCS Daily

The Bush Administration Needs to Become Pro Choice

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - February 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Two recent stories illustrate the failure of public education.

The first comes from writer and blogger Joanne Jacobs, and references the reaction of one of the public high schools in Atlanta to the application of Marquis Harris for a teaching job. As Harris puts it:

Recently, I interviewed with a school in one of the metro Atlanta counties, only to receive an e-mail from the principal stating, "Though your qualifications are quite impressive, I regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate. It was felt that your demeanor and therefore presence in the classroom would serve as an unrealistic expectation as to what high school students could strive to achieve or become. However, it is highly recommended that you seek employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Good luck."

As Jacobs puts it, the story is "astounding." But it is no more astounding than the story dug up by economist and blogger Alex Tabarrok:

The school honor roll, a time-honored system for rewarding A students, has become an apparent source of embarrassment for some underachievers.

As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways -- on the advice of school lawyers.

After a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list, lawyers for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission.

Some schools have since put a stop to academic pep rallies. Others think they may have to cancel spelling bees. And now schools across the state may follow Nashville's lead.

The change has upset many parents who want their children to be recognized for hard work.

[. . .]

[Principal Steven] Baum thinks spelling bees and other publicly graded events are leftovers from the days of ranking and sorting students.

"I discourage competitive games at school," he said. "They just don't fit my worldview of what a school should be."

The reasons frequently given for the implementation of a school choice program include declining test scores, the need to have students avoid school systems run by unqualified teachers and administrators, and to give poor families the same chance as rich ones to send their children to quality schools. But school choice is also needed to allow kids to break out of schools where teachers and principals have given up on them. And as the stories brought to us by Jacobs and Tabarrok make clear, that's exactly what is happening in schools around the country.

This surrender to failure and mediocrity makes it all the more likely that those kids will not receive the inspirational education that they need. After all, why would these teachers and principals waste time on students not expected to go anywhere, or to amount to anything?

Students need the educational options provided by school choice to break out of this system. But despite the fact that school vouchers have been ruled constitutionally valid by the United States Supreme Court, little has been done to actually advance the cause.

In negotiating with Congress over the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Bush Administration quietly dropped any demands for a comprehensive school choice program. This despite the fact that vouchers have been shown to have a thoroughly positive effect where they have been tried, that vouchers raise the quality of education in even the poorest countries, and that private schools (for which vouchers would be used) are quite moderately priced. While some progress has been made in the battle to implement school choice, the Bush Administration has largely neglected the issue.

The reasons for this neglect are incomprehensible. To be very cynical about the issue, few things would serve the Bush Administration's political goals more than to make school choice an issue in a presidential election year. Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey, in an article discussing the virtues of choice in general, discusses a study purporting to find that in being asked to pick the most delicious chocolates -- despite the fact that people offered many choices found the process of finding a favorite chocolate "more difficult than participants offered more limited choices" -- those same people also found that they "enjoy[ed] the decision-making process significantly more than the participants who encountered limited options." Concludes Bailey, "In other words, pain in the ass though it may be, more choice is still most people's preference when it comes to chocolates." The same holds true for schools, and it would be a winning campaign strategy to run on that message.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about Media Mistakes.


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