School Choice Means the Freedom to Learn

As a former economics professor for two decades, I believe wholeheartedly in the value of a good education and I have seen first-hand the doors that can open when students have the opportunity to excel. That opportunity stems from the freedom of the mind and the freedom embedded in school choice.

It’s fitting that School Choice Week fell during the presidential cabinet confirmation process. Our soon-to-be Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a champion for students. I look forward to working with her on expanding opportunities and building on our past success.

I am an enthusiastic supporter and co-sponsor of Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, H.R. 4091, which the House passed last year. This bill gives scholarships to students from low-income families in the District of Columbia so they can attend the school of their choice. It improves educational outcomes and empowers both parents and students.

The chance to attend a private school has changed the trajectory of the young lives of these students in D.C. Instead of experiencing the district’s current 58 percent graduation rate, students that participate in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) have a 90 percent graduation rate. Eighty eight percent of these students go on to a two- or four-year college or university. With more than 8,500 student names on waiting lists for the program last year, it is clear that parents and students appreciate the advantage the program provides. The program’s success speaks for itself.

Too often the debate on school choice is political. We forget about the lives of the children, who have everything riding on this opportunity, and we also forget the competing philosophies behind the debate.

As an economics professor, the question of school choice boils down to this simple fact: the public school system relies upon a monopoly position in both economics and politics. It is the status quo. The foremost economist Adam Smith showed that monopolies create the worst outcomes, both in quantity and quality in all markets. Competition sparks creativity and variety. Additionally, our founding father James Madison showed that we also arrive at the best political outcome when there is competition between many small factions. Not centralized government.

At an even deeper level, the fundamental argument for freedom of conscience becomes even stronger. We have seen this throughout the course of our nation’s history.

Through choice, the individual has power. Parents are closest to their children; and therefore are in the best position to hold the power to see that their children are educated in a way that best suits their individual needs.

Currently, poor parents are penalized because they do not possess the financial means to vote with their feet when they live in a failing school district. While wealthy parents can move to an excellent school district in the right zip code, poor parents and their children remain trapped. School vouchers and other programs level the playing field.

We just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, a man whose writings and philosophy of freedom deeply inspire and motivate me. His PhD in Protestant theology greatly influenced his thought and writings, and his speeches were imbued with the Hebrew and Greek scriptures he had intensely internalized.

I share with King a common vision of our nation united, borne from Christian love and freedom and responsibility.

King was a warrior who fought against injustice in his time. Today, we have come a long way on racial equality, but injustice persists. Middle-class wages have remained stagnant for 30 years. Inner-city crime rates and educational attainment levels are way off track.

Part of the problem is that our K-12 education system is failing our kids; they are not being taught about business or ethics or about the Judeo-Christian tradition. Families have been decimated, and criminal justice is now under assault in every direction. Something is very wrong.

So the first thing we in Congress should do is to return the power of choice, and the funds that come with that, from the federal level back down to the states and the localities, and ultimately to the parents.

This will surely upset the status quo but it is necessary to break up the monopoly in education so that students everywhere can enjoy the same chance of success that those in the best zip codes do. Freedom and choice took down kings around the world and allowed the people to rule and run their own lives. Our children now deserve the chance to chart their own future.