February 8, 2006
School Competition Remains "Unproven"
When Mark and Jenny Sanford moved from Charleston to Columbia, S.C.,
they had a big concern: Where would their kids go to school? They
wanted to send their kids to public school, but the middle school
near their new home was not particularly good. But it turned out
that this wouldn't have been a problem for the Sanfords because
the reason they had moved to Columbia was Mark had just been elected
governor. While students are normally assigned to schools based
on where their house is located, Gov. Sanford's family was offered
special options: People from better school districts invited them
to send their kids to those schools.
"And I said,
well, that's not fair," first lady Jenny Sanford told me.
She asked one school official whether her neighbors were stuck
with their local school, and he said they were. "But we're
going to waive that requirement because you're the governor."
Caught between taking
advantage of that special privilege and denying their sons a good
education, the Sanfords escaped to private school, an option that
many other Americans, once the taxman has taken his cut, cannot
afford. It was an option Gov. Sanford, especially after this experience,
didn't think should be reserved for the rich or the powerful.
He said state tax credits should help parents pay for private
From the uproar the
governor's plan generated, you would think that South Carolina
had a great school system in place and that the governor wanted
to demolish it. But it doesn't, and he didn't. South Carolina
has a school system where half the students who enter high school
fail to graduate in four years, a system so bad that the state's
first lady thought that sending her sons to their zoned school
would "sacrifice their education." And the governor
didn't propose to abolish the public schools. He just tried to
introduce competition. Public schools that could convince families
they were providing a quality education would still have had plenty
Living in America,
we have plenty of examples of how competition improves lives.
The phone company was once a government-supported monopoly. All
the phones were black and all the calls expensive. It was illegal
to plug in an answering machine. (Installing a foreign device,
the monopoly called it.) But once AT&T lost monopoly status
-- poof! -- suddenly customers mattered. Now, thanks to competition,
you get a number of calling plans to choose from, and phone calls
are much more affordable -- whether you choose AT&T or not.
Competition is, in
general, better than monopoly -- and in this case, the monopoly
was already failing. Even if you're not a big fan of the free
market, why would you want to preserve a monopoly that's obviously
doing a bad job? How could allowing choice possibly have been
worse than keeping students trapped in failing public schools?
The governor announced
his plan last year. Thousands of parents cheered the idea. But
most public educators and politicians didn't.
School boards and
teachers unions objected. PTAs even sent kids home with a letter
saying, "Contact your legislator. How can we spend state
money on something that hasn't been proven?"
(Apparently, it was
better to spend state money on something that had been proven
not to work.)
The governor's plan
"would decimate public education in South Carolina, and it's
just not good for us," said State Representative Todd Rutherford.
The teachers union
paid for ads that argued schools were getting better. Legislators
obediently voted down the governor's plan, 60-53.
The state superintendent
of schools, Inez Tenenbaum, was relieved. "It was an unproven,
unaffordable, and unaccountable plan," she told me.
It may have been
unaccountable in the bureaucratic sense -- lacking the arbitrary
supervision of some appointed head honcho -- but it would have
been the essence of accountability in a much more meaningful way:
Schools would have had to satisfy students and parents, or they
would have lost their customers.
And unproven? Yes.
It was unproven because the bureaucrats, the teachers' unions
and their legislative allies are vigilant in their efforts to
prevent anyone from trying it. They've gotten their hands on America's
children, and they have no intention of letting go.
JFS Productions, Inc. Distributed by Creators Syndicate