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Real change requires real competition and real choice

Chuck Muth
For the Appeal

Have you ever noticed an intersection where there’s a McDonald’s on one corner and a Burger King on another? Or an Exxon station located directly across the street from a Chevron station? Or a Holiday Inn a block up the street from a Hampton Inn? Do you ever wonder why that is? I mean, why don’t these businesses just operate like our government schools: only one per neighborhood?

Because competition works. It improves service. It lowers prices for consumers. And it winnows out bad operators. Public schools, on the other hand, don’t like competition. In fact, they’re scared to death of it. Ever wonder why that is?

I mean, if the public schools are as wonderful as education bureaucrats and union officials say they are, why fear competition and giving parents the same choices in education as they have for, say, health care? The government doesn’t pick your child’s doctor; why should it pick your child’s teacher?

Recognizing that school choice is gaining more and more public support, some school districts are experimenting with what they consider to be parental options. For example, the Clark County School District is currently testing an “open enrollment” pilot program that allows the parents of kids in public schools in the county’s worst region to transfer their kids to any school of their choice – as long as it’s another public school.

Some choice, huh? “Yes, Mr. Jones, you may have any color you want for your new car – as long as it’s black.”

Lo and behold, only 45 students have applied to transfer out of one public school and into a different public school in a far-away neighborhood. Go figure. The excuse for the low response rate given by school district bureaucrats is the lack of “free” taxpayer-funded transportation available to bus kids from the neighborhood public school they’d like to flee to the new school. This excuse, by definition, means we have poor kids trapped in underperforming schools from which there is currently no escape.

The education establishment’s “solution” to this “problem,” of course, will be to take more of the taxpayers’ money to provide “free” transportation. But that won’t fix the problem. What parent wants to bus their kid all the way over to the other side of town?

The real solution, of course, is to have a competitive private elementary school in the same neighborhood as the existing public elementary school. Then and only then will parents have real school choice. But that brings up the real problem: cost.

How can private schools compete with “free” schools? They can’t, of course. Except with parents who are well off financially. So the only way to encourage more people to open private schools in more neighborhoods so kids won’t have to be bussed all over God’s creation is to level the playing field. And that means reallocating the money we’re currently giving directly to the public schools and instead giving it directly to parents to use as they see fit.

If thousands of parents are suddenly waving, say, $5,000 tuition assistance checks in the air demanding a private school in their neighborhood, some private school will find a way to meet that demand. I mean, that’s just what the free market does. It sees a demand and fills it. And the ensuing competition will be good for the public school across the street. As Sharon Caplan, principal of the public Don E. Hayden Elementary School in North Las Vegas said last week, “Competition anywhere is a good thing.” Amen.

It’s time to give real competition and real choice in education a real chance.

• Chuck Muth, of Carson City, is president and CEO of Citizen Outreach and a political blogger. Read his views Fridays on the Appeal Opinion page or visit http://www.muthstruths.com.