Michelle Rhee, former DC Schools Chancellor, has published her first book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, that chronicles her evolution as one of the nation’s preeminent education reformers. In 2007, she was appointed to the newly created position of Chancellor of the DC public schools. Her tenure there caused her to rethink many of her assumptions. The biggest transformation, though, was that she became an ardent supporter of school vouchers.
A life-long Democrat, Rhee had been reflexively opposed to school vouchers. She had bought into the teacher unions’ argument that money spent on vouchers directed money away from the public school system. Because public schools receive taxpayer funds based on how many students are enrolled, the argument makes some very superficial sense. But, very superficial, as Rhee now argues. From her book:
Most people in this country do not favor vouchers in education, because they don’t want public dollars going to private institutions or businesses. But the logic holds absolutely no water.
We have federal Pell grants that low-income students use all the time to attend private colleges. Pell grants aren’t limited to use at public universities. We have food stamps that low-income families redeem at nongovernment grocery stores. And let’s not forget about Medicare and Medicaid.
Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ‘Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”
No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.
Rhee seems to have realized that we have generally approached education policy backwards. We discuss education policy in terms of the education system rather than the goal of providing a basic education for kids. Most of the debates center on the adults who are employed by the system, rather than the parents who are simply seeking the best education for their children.
A public commitment to education should be focused on providing the best education possible for each child. Our approach, however, has been to create and fund one particular system and throw additional money at it when it inevitably fails. Monopoly providers never provide the best services or products. Public education is no different.
In Holland and Sweden, parents, at the beginning of each school year, tell the government where to send that portion of taxpayer funds supporting their child’s education. The school could be public, private, secular or even religious. The principle is that the public’s commitment is to a child, not a system.
I hope Rhee’s conversion catches on. Our current education system is condemning a generation of kids to live outside the American dream. A free society cannot survive the creation of a permanent underclass. That is what the Democrats and the teachers union are creating. Hopefully, Rhee’s evolution will spark a rethinking in the public to reverse that.