If even the socialists embrace school choice, what’s our excuse? UL, 12/7/11

posted Dec 7, 2011, 2:58 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Dec 7, 2011, 3:18 PM ]
(This is Arlinghaus preparing the ground for the major legislative effort to implement vouchers in New Hampshire.)

New Hampshire Union Leader 12/07/2011, Page A16

If even the socialists embrace school choice, what’s our excuse?

WE SHOULD TAKE good ideas where we can find them. If President Obama and the socialists in Sweden are onto something good, there’s no reason not to follow suit. The next Legislature can follow the example of the President and Swedish socialists to create greater opportunity and outcomes for New Hampshire’s children.

When it comes to his children, President Obama is not a politician and is not captive to ideology, nor should he be.

When the Obamas relocated to a home in the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue (a street in the city of Washington, D.C.), their children were assigned a school not on the basis of assessment, conversation about needs, or anything else other than the address of the home.

Some parents are forced to accept this assignment. It often works out just fine, but sometimes it doesn’t. All children are different. They have different needs, abilities and priorities.

Their parents have different needs, abilities and priorities.

In the case of the newly relocated Obama family, they had a financial ability to address the specific needs of each child.

The parents in this case, even though the one parent had just accepted a new job that involved some degree of orientation, took some time to look at a bunch of schools in the area and find the one they felt best suited to the needs of their kids. They weren’t spurning the one designated school that would have to do for families of more limited means; they were acting in the best interests of their children.

The socialist paradise of Sweden on its own decided to institutionalize the experience of the Obama family many years earlier. In the 1990s, Sweden decentralized education. Rather than have one big school district in which teachers were employees of the national government, the Swedes decided that parents should choose their children’s school, with funding following the child. There was no longer any such thing as an administratively assigned school.

Technically, this idea was pushed by the Moderate Party (one of those radical moderate ideas we hear so much about).

But it also was embraced by the Socialist Party when it took office. The results are what we might expect. Parents and students appreciate more options, more choices and more specialization. According to a 2003 study of the program, “different schools compete through the quality of education, by offering special subjects, or focusing on children with special needs.”

Those principles should be adopted as we approach education reform in New Hampshire.

The focus of our discussion is always on education funding and constitutional amendments, but we ought to pay more attention to opportunity.

The Obama example is the one that should guide us. No one on the planet thinks the First Family should have limited their choices for their kids to the one school that was assigned to them by school system bureaucrats. That administrative assignment has nothing to do with the children, nor does it pretend to.

We all agree that these particular parents, one of whom happens to have a government job that is more visible than some, should have considered whatever options they could for their kids. If they were two anonymous rich people, we would encourage them to consider a variety of schools. That doesn’t change because of the public nature of one parent’s job. However, in today’s world it does change significantly because of one’s finances.

Wealthier parents have more options. They can move more easily to other districts, and they have the means to send their kids to a variety of schools. There’s no reason in this day and age that we can’t extend some of those choices to children from families of lesser means.

The truth is that for the vast majority of parents, the local school is fine. Especially in New Hampshire, the local school is a good choice for most children.

But no school is or could possibly be the right choice for every child. For some children, other options will improve their outcomes.

There are myriad ways to extend opportunity to more children. There will be time to debate the precise structures and how a plan can be implemented. But at the heart of this debate must be a focus on better outcomes for more children. In an ideal system, every parent would go through what the Obama family went through. We would consider many different options for each child and choose a school on the basis of the child, not on the basis of geography or administrative convenience. There’s no reason not to make that change today in New Hampshire.


Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.