Acton Commentary

Choosing a Prosperous Future


The children are our future, goes the hackneyed phrase. It is gag-inducing when issued from the mouths of politicians and celebrities, but its truth can’t be denied.

Which makes it all the more important that we make strides to improve what is at present a severely inadequate effort to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s world. A big step forward would be the advance of educational freedom on two fronts: liberating schools, teachers, and administrators from paralyzing red tape; and liberating parents from constraints on school choice.

Nancy Pelosi received well-deserved criticism for her grotesque attempt to defend the inclusion of birth control promotion in the economic stimulus bill. But Pelosi’s tortured observations do point to a truth: It is not enough to bring children into the world. Economic resources are required to care for dependent young people, and the responsibility to provide the intellectual and moral education necessary for engagement of the world is serious.

Focusing on education is not a distraction from the pressing business of economic recovery; it is vital to ensuring it. When asked recently to explain the causes of the stagnation of the American economy, the first response of Paypal co-founder and CEO of Clarion Capital Peter Thiel was telling: “You have an educational system that is very broken.”

Public schools absorb a lot of criticism for failing to ensure basic competency in their students, and for spending loads of money not doing it. Yet most administrators and teachers are dedicated to their jobs and sincerely concerned about the welfare of their students. One of the factors hampering success is excessive regulation, a product of a litigious culture and overweening government involvement in education.

To cite but one troubled area, countless hours and dollars are now spent ensuring the “safety” of students by adhering to strict standards concerning everything from classroom supplies to cafeteria furniture. Parents rightly expect due caution to be exercised by those entrusted with the lives of their children every day, but safety regulations enforced on schools exceed what most of us demand in our own homes. All of this distracts from the core mission of the school.

Evidence continues to suggest that private schools educate more efficiently than public ones. Yet the largest private system in the country, Catholic schools, continue to struggle: A New York Times article last month—prompted by the announcement of another raft of school closures in the city—noted that the number of students in Catholic schools is half what it was in the 1960s.

Declining private school enrollment should not be taken as an indication that parents are satisfied with conventional public schools. That demand for alternatives persists is proved by a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, showing a 36 percent rise in the number of homeschooled children from 2003 to 2007 (now standing at 1.5 million, almost 3 percent of the school population). Interest in choice within the public arena—for example, charter schools and open enrollment—remains high as well.

Declining private enrollment is more likely due to the fact that families, especially in a downturn, increasingly cannot afford to support two school systems, one through their taxes and another through their tuition. States should promote public school alternatives, fostering competition and greater efficiency. Charter schools could be utilized more liberally. Tax breaks offer incentives for parents to choose private schools and relieve the overall public funding burden. Federal authorities have offered some help this year by permitting income tax deductions for local property taxes. States could follow suit by allowing similar deductions for the purpose of tuition payments or homeschooling expenses.

As states look for ways to balance their budgets, some might bristle at the cost of extending tax breaks or vouchers. Yet it’s not clear that the end result would be negative for the state budgets. Tax deductions might be offset by gains reaped by shifting school populations to private alternatives. Competition at the local level might spur public schools to higher efficiency. Significantly, pressure to remove expensive regulation would increase.

More important than this year’s budget or next year’s deficit is the economic viability of the next century. Without a sound educational system, the prospects dim considerably. It should be clear by now that prosperity depends on both technical expertise and moral integrity. Neither can be achieved without bringing freedom to our schools. In existing schools, staff must be permitted to teach and discipline in a way that cultivates virtue and suppresses vice. Where schools have failed, parents must be encouraged to select more effective options for their children.

School reform and school choice are not peripheral to economic recovery and future prosperity. They are essential.


Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, and a consultant to the Catholic High School Honor Roll.

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