My View: Vouchers will tear down the 'Berlin Wall' of education
May 30th, 2012
06:30 AM ET

My View: Vouchers will tear down the 'Berlin Wall' of education

Courtesy Friedman FoundationBy Robert Enlow, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Robert Enlow is President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose.

(CNN) Twenty five years ago, President Reagan gave a speech in West Berlin where he exhorted Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Two years later, the barbed wire and wall that was a symbol of oppression came crashing down, ending decades of tyranny and leading to one of the greatest expansions of freedom and liberty in the 20th Century.

America has its own Berlin Wall. It is called K-12 education.

As schools let out for summer vacation, far too many parents, particularly low-income parents, are trapped behind the wall of their zip code or family income. They have no real freedom to send their child to a school that works best for them, and far too often they are forced to attend woefully underperforming schools or schools that just don't meet their child's individual learning needs.

This cannot go on.

Instead, we must tear down the Berlin Wall that holds back parents from being able to pick the school that best fits their child's unique learning style.

Thankfully, in the last two years, education reform and school choice have become front and center in America. As Mitt Romney said last week, we must put an end to the millions of children in our nation who receive a "third world education." And President Obama said, "Michelle and I are here only because we were given a chance at an education. I will not settle for an America where some kids don't have that chance."

The first step in tearing down the educational Berlin Wall is to give parents – particularly low-income parents and parents of special needs students – more freedom of choice.

Programs such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are lifesavers for thousands of children and are steps in the right direction. However, all kids should have access to quality educational options and no child should be excluded for arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with an individual child's needs.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist and father of the school choice concept, believed that to dramatically improve public education, you must give all parents the freedom to choose. The greater the potential for schools to lose customers, the more likely you will see schools improve.

Just like the millions of East Germans who demanded freedom, we know that there are millions of parents that want to be removed from a system that uses a zip code to determine where their children must attend school. They want more school choice.

Earlier this month, The Friedman Foundation released a poll by Braun Research, Inc. that showed 71 percent of Moms with school-aged children support school vouchers for all students; only 30 percent of these Moms believed vouchers should be allocated based on financial need or disability.

We often hear from Moms that their children have unique circumstances that may require more individualized attention that can only be found in a private school. Moms seeking school choice sometimes want other options because their children may be in an unsafe environment. Or they may believe their public school may not share their cultural, social or spiritual values. Or, more likely, they may feel that the traditional public school just doesn't perform well enough to address their child's learning needs and thus, will negatively impact their child's future academic success.

They are telling the education monopoly they want options. They do not want to be held behind the Berlin Wall of their zip code and told where their child must be sent to school. Moms and all voters are starting to tell educators they want options so children aren’t destined to one track in life.

As Romney pointed out, a "third world education" is not uncommon in our nation. And when children receive such an education, they are more likely to be unemployed, on government assistance or in jail or in prison when they become adults.

Vouchers not only provide freedom, they offer the political, moral, ethical and economical high ground.

We say Moms know best. Vouchers should be made available to children no matter if they are poor, disabled, from the middle class or from a family of 10, or from a rural, suburban or urban area.

There should be no restrictions on who gets to choose, just like there were no restrictions on who could escape tyranny once the Berlin Wall fell.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Enlow.

Posted by
Filed under: School choice • Voices
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. j young

    I am all for vouchers. Why should parents have to send their children to schools that continually fail them? I pulled my daughter from the public school system when she was in kindergarten. She had been diagnosed with learning disorders, including dyslexia and dysgraphia, and had spent the year with a teacher who ripped up papers and scribbled on her work with a red marker when my daughter would write things backwards. After doing the IEP, we were told that although she had learning problems, her intelligence testing scored too high to allow them to classify her as learning disabled, but they could classify her as ADHD (NOT the problem) and allow her to meet with a social worker once a month. We pulled her out and put her in a parochial school. 3 years later, she is still struggles, but is working at grade level and gets A's on all of her tests because the school was willing to provide accomodations that the public school simply wouldn't. We recently had her re-evaluated with the same results, and considered returning to the public school because tuition costs were so high, only to find that after reviewing all of the testing and the IEP, the school wasn't still only willing to provide minimal assistance. I say bring on the vouchers. I've seen the difference the right school and environment makes firsthand. Our children deserve more than an education. They deserve every opportunity for success that can be provided-and if the public schools can't do it, parents should have options.

    June 6, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  2. Teri

    Vouchers will not solve the problem because private and charter schools have a huge advantage that public schools do not have – they can limit their size. They don't have to take everybody or anybody that wants to come to their school. They have the right to say "Sorry, we are full." or "Sorry, we don't provide the special services a child like yours needs – you will have to take him/her to another school." or even "Your child is not a good fit for our school. We have rules and behavior expectations and your child has not met them. You will have to find another school for your child."

    What will the government do when they issue a bunch of vouchers, but the charter and private schools are full? Or when the charter and private schools won't take those students? These schools run by their own rules. They can decide how many students they want in a classroom, they can decide what curriculum to use, they can decide if they want to provide extra resources for struggling students and they do not have to administer standarized test's to ensure that their students are making adequet growth and progress. They can claim to be better than public schools, but unless their students take the exact same test's they can't really prove it.

    I have taught in both public AND private schools. In my experience the public schools do a MUCH better job of helping struggling students. And, as an earlier post said – these struggling students are the most expensive. Private and charter schools don't want to spend the money to give these students the help they need – but public schools are REQUIRED to.

    Some students struggle because of learning disabilites that have nothing to do with their socioeconomic status or home life. But, many many students struggle because they are so disadvantaged. I have students with very very sad life stories. And yet, we take them, we do our best to overcome the huge obsticals to learning that their home life puts in our way. These parents won't even sign a homework folder or read at home to their you really think they are going to apply for a voucher, research schools, and then drive them to school and pick them up every day?

    These "experts" must not have spent much time actually working in a classroom. Would you hire a roofing "expert" to fix your leaking roof that had never been on one before? Would you hire a legal "expert" to defend you against a frivilous lawsuit because they served time as a juror (I know all about education because I went to school)?

    June 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  3. The # 1 Diablo Guide

    Usually I don't learn article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do it! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, quite great post.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  4. Maria J

    I am fed up with politics in schools. What happened to educating the child?? It's not difficult. Teachers need to teach to the best of their ability and if they are not performing, they need to go back to school. There's no shame in getting the tools you need to be better at what you do. We should never stop learning. We expect the students to come to tutorials when they need help so why can't teachers set the example??

    It's gotten so difficult in letting teachers go. Why?? Maybe we can learn something from Donald Trump –You're fired! In the real world, if you're not productive, you get a chance, maybe two and then you are let go. Why do we accept mediocrity when it comes to our children? They are our most valuable asset.

    And the parents. Well, being in the best schools because they can meet your child's needs better isn't going to help if you don't do your job as a parent. You still have to take time with your child. The schools and the teachers can't do it all. Parents don't want to parent, and in defense of some, they don't know how and leave everything to the schools. Well, why don't you just sign over custody papers to the school while you're at it! Parenting isn't easy and yes, it's challenging and time-consuming, but it's worth it!

    Let's all try to do our jobs, whether we're parents, teachers, or politicians and let us not forget those we work for–the children!

    June 1, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  5. Aaron

    "In a system like this–dubbed "educational apartheid" by one Chilean professor–only students from wealthier families can afford to access quality education, while all others must take out expensive educational loans, saddling them with enormous debt"

    Milton Friedman's philosophy led to the military dictatorships that killed 1000's of people in the Southern Cone of South America. Pure evil. In fact Pinochet targeted educators. How ironic.

    Let the local community reform the schools. Get rid of all of the bureaucracy and mandates. Teachers can't do their jobs because of the pyramid scheme called "privatization." Pump in billions of dollars, tie the hands of teachers, blame them based on trivial data, and eventually let it trickle into the hands of a private company? All this at the expense of the kids. Create a crisis.......I mean propaganda, like in this writers opinion and stooges believe. Mandates restrict the school of reforming on it's own. The school does not need a private company to run the school system. As a parent I am outraged at our inept government. A Congress with the lowest approval rating ever should not be reforming our public schools.

    Chile's voucher system is a disaster and don't trust anyone from the Friedman Foundation.

    May 31, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  6. Melissa

    Vouchers are long as the receiving schools are also held to the same standards as public schools. They must accept ALL students and provide an appropriate education for each of those students no matter how costly their needs. Students may not dismissed from a school due to behavior problems or lack of academic drive.

    May 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • JEM

      Given the level of damage that the public education system is doing, why would you want the private voucher receivers to fail? Why would you place such restrictions upon them?

      What is your objection to schools who specialize?

      May 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Jeremy

    Vouchers will build barbed wire around the "Berlin wall." Yes, parents will have more choices for their child's education. But the millions of children whose choice of school is based solely on location, will suffer greatly. Low income neighborhoods don't have schools that parent from high socioeconomic backgrounds will send their children to. These schools will be underfunded causing lower socioeconomic familes to receive a sub par education. The education system is suppose to help end the cycle of poverty, the voucher sysytem will act as a catalyst.

    May 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  8. Eric Andersen

    Romney used the latest PISA scores to say that our students are getting a third-world education. When US schools are broken out by poverty level and compared to other countries with similar poverty levels the US is in first place in every poverty category. From top to bottom. Not to mention that we educate all of our children unlike most other countries. Comparing apples to apples the US has the by far the best K-12 public education system in the world. Can we improve? Of course we can. This Repub claim that US public education system is broken is an outright lie. How can it be broken when we are doing a better job than every other country in the world? Do we spend more per pupil on education than most other countries? Yes we do. What group of students are the most expensive to educate? The bottom 25%. The very same bottom 25% that most other countries do not educate and do not include in their statistics.

    May 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Skeptic

      Please cite your sources sir. As an educational researcher I can tell you that your points are not true. We are outperformed when comparing apples to apples. There are districts in both China and several of the Nordic countries that greatly outperform even a subsample of our students. Yes it is true that we educate everybody, which does have a statistical impact on our scores, it is not a completely moderating effect. It is simply an excuse given when somebody does not tear into the statistics for themselves. You can also pull some of our top performing middle and high schools in the nation out of the data set, and they do not compare to top districts in some of the other locations of the world. If you have other information, please cite it.

      May 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
      • Eric Andersen

        May 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • MaryJane

      Your article compared Finland's and other OECD countries poverty rate to the US. Actually before social transfers Finland's poverty rate is similar to United States but after social transfers it drops dramatically. Can I assume from your citation that you wish lower the poverty rate in the United States? Maybe that will help our kids perform better.

      May 31, 2012 at 2:46 am |
      • Eric Andersen

        Lowering the poverty rate would be great but it is not the point of my post. The point of my post is that it is not that US public schools are providing a 'third-world' education. We are providing education to students who live in 'third-world' poverty. As the linked article states one of the very few linear relationships that exist in these statistics is the poverty/academic achievement relationship. The US is doing a better job of educating students, despite their poverty, than any other country in the world.

        May 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. ChristyG

    As a teacher, what do we do with failing students? We enroll them in special education programs. We get them tutors. We provide as many supports as we can to get them to pass, and hopefully graduate, or at least get a GED so that they can be participating members of society and function at their best. We nurture them and encourage them to focus on positive things and push them to their fullest potential, even if it is only a "C Average". All so that they can have a good life once they leave the school environment.

    As a government, what do we do with failing schools? We hire emergency managers to cut everyone out. We cut funding based on under-performance with students from families that have little or no income and can't read to their children every night to support their education. We give teachers "merit pay" or fire them based on test scores that they really have little control over! We cut, cut, cut! If we did that to failing students, would there not be outrage?! If we decided that students who fail should just be cut out of school?!

    Why is it okay to have current educational trends be moving toward Positive Behavioral and Academic Support, but our government concentrating on all negatives! As public school employees, we are trying so hard to focus on what kids do well and recognize them for it to encourage those positive things and NOT focus on the negatives. Yes, government, let's put in Merit pay and focus on the who is "the best", while creating a resentful and non-cooperative environment among teachers. Let's cut away at everything our "neighborhood" schools have so that parents can have choices. What good is having the choice when the nearest school that you "choose" is miles away! Especially when you may have a perfectly good school right down the street that people who have never taught a day in their life deem as unfit or under-performing! I challenge any government official that is making decisions for the fate of public education to step into a classroom for a day; to do the job of a teacher for just a little while and to be held accountable for those kids that eat all of their meals for the day at that neighborhood school! Those kids that were up all night taking care of their siblings because there are no functioning adults in the household! Those kids at age 10 that know more about the streets than most adults know!

    Please, let's focus on what schools do well! Let's support our schools that need help! Let's make sure that our neighborhood schools can function so that the family that doesn't own a vehicle doesn't have to be trapped behind that "Berlin Wall" of education! Let's do what our schools are doing and create positive rewards and supports for all who may need support and encouragement to do better! Let's foster an environment of cooperation and ingenuity to make sure we can work with what we have, even if it's not much! Teachers are fabulous people! They work wonders with what they are given and they touch lives forever! They turn kids into Presidents, CEO's, Mothers, Fathers, Forbes 500 names, celebrities even! Let's appreciate them!!!! Let's fund our schools and make each school a wonderful place to learn! Time to focus on the positive, people!

    May 30, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • JEM

      Do a Google search for "Ball Tapping", "Dropout Factory" or "Bullying" and one might conclude that our public schools don't do much of anything well accept train kids for careers as prison inmates.

      May 31, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
      • Aaron

        The Friedman Foundation has no problem with career inmates. Privatization of the jail system is happening. Bottom line is, you need people in jail to profit. America's culture will always produce inmates.

        Bottom line for profit is an out of control evil in this country. From destroying our environment to creating resentment abroad, this country is in a downward spiral. As Mitt and our rogue Supreme Court says "Corporations are people." Liberty, after all is only for the Aristocrats. Corporations have the liberty to oppress the masses. Vouchers would do the same. My community should be able to reform the schools in my districts. Not some bum from D.C. or some for-profit company.

        May 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm |