Good Afternoon, my name is Merrick Carey, and I am CEO of the Lexington Institute, and we are pleased to have all of you here today for this forum on education reform in the Old Dominion.
I was born in 1957. That was a long time ago…in fact 45 years. That was also the year Milton Friedman first proposed that vouchers be used to make K-12 education more competitive, consumer-oriented, and excellent.
In 1978 I wrote my first press release supporting then Senator Moynihan’s tuition tax credit proposal. That too was a long time ago.
You really couldn’t blame the supporters of school choice for getting impatient, indeed exhausted, from this policy fight. It has been a long struggle against the massive financial and political interests of the teacher unions, the school boards, and a prevailing culture that insists all good things must come through a centralized government bureaucracy. Along the way, there have been shattering defeats, especially for the voucher initiatives that went down in California, Colorado, and Michigan over the last ten years.
Yet despite all the odds against us, the movement for school choice in America appears to be winning. A look across the landscape finds 2700 charter schools in 36 states. Six states have tuition tax credits, and there are 3 robust voucher experiments going forward in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida. Education Savings Accounts are now part of the federal tax code, and President Bush’s education law allows Title 1 monies to be used for private tutorial services for inner city students if their public schools fail them.
Each one of these reforms alone will not give us a full choice education sector, but together they represent the victory of choice over monopoly, democracy over bureaucracy, and the vital oxygen that will begin raising the entire K-12 education sector to a level of excellence not seen in decades. Because that is what the school choice movement is really after. Not more money for private schools, or scholarships for certain lucky inner city kids, or turning every neighborhood school into a charter school. What the school choice movement is really after is putting so much pressure on the erstwhile monopoly public education system that it has to improve, or else it will go away.
A very interesting back door approach to school choice has developed in the standards and accountability movement, and it is on prominent display here in Virginia, as well as in President Bush’s new education law. The Virginia SOLs and other standards efforts were designed to grade schools themselves, to have a measure by which parents can see how well their schools are doing educating children. But as standards are implemented the inevitable question is raised: what if a school keeps failing? What happens then?
There is only one answer: Another option has to be developed for parents and students in those failing schools. No one, even the most dogmatic believer in central government planning, could comfortably stand there and say, ” this is good enough.”
Thanks to former Governor Allen, the SOLs are putting tremendous pressure on schools across the state to improve, and they are. They are responding to the challenge even in the hardest areas, like Norfolk and Richmond. They may be responding because they fear they will be shut down, or they don’t want to be turned into a charter school. Or they may be responding because now that they have a measurable benchmark, they simply want to do better. It doesn’t matter. What matters is kids are starting to get a better education, and the pressure from the SOLs and school choice is working.
That pressure was ratcheted up further earlier this year when Governor Warner signed into law a measure making it easier for charter schools to get their applications through local school boards. And now the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Bill Howell, a powerful new statewide Republican leader, has called for a further strengthening of charter laws to give these innovative schools a chance to become a bigger part of the Virginia landscape.
We will be hearing a great deal today from the key reformers who are pressing the case for tuition tax credits here in Virginia, which will probably be the next significant step helping our schools. Before we get to them, let me leave you with this final thought: The opponents of school choice and the SOLs maintain they are the ones protecting the public schools. But they are wrong. By throwing roadblocks in the way of reforms, they are slowing progress in reaching better run, academically excellent K-12 public schools. It is competition and choice and options that will make public schools better, not drawing the wagons around the status quo and hoping parents and politicians and kids themselves will close their eyes and hope for the best. That is not going to happen, and the opponents of school choice should seriously reconsider their position.
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