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Time for school choice in Chicago

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"There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." -- Calvin Coolidge, responding to the 1919 Boston police strike

This oft-quoted line from the then-governor of Massachusetts might be updated to include "the public interest" as well as public safety.

There are few matters of public interest greater than educating the next generation. Chicago public school teachers who went on strike Monday have struck against the public interest, placing self-interest in difficult economic times ahead of children.

At a time of high unemployment, the teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union want a pay increase and better medical coverage, as well as provisions that include a hire-back policy for laid-off teachers and one that makes it more difficult to dismiss underperforming teachers.

But there is a way around the current impasse that doesn't involve giving in to the union. It's school choice. Competition would allow parents to send their children to schools that make them the priority.

A June Gallup Poll found that "Americans' confidence in public schools is down five percentage points from last year, with 29 percent expressing 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence in them." Gallup notes "That establishes a new low in public school confidence from the 33 percent measured in Gallup's 2007 and 2008 Confidence in Institution polls." In 1973, the high was 58 percent.

The public school system is a virtual state monopoly inundated by many dictates from Washington and has been unable to consistently produce nearly enough well-rounded graduates capable of supporting themselves or contributing to the nation. Yet public school students, especially the poor and minorities, remain locked in failed schools so that Democratic politicians can seemingly reap the political benefits -- and contributions -- from teachers unions.

Politicians regularly campaign for more spending on education. In Maryland, proponents of an expansion of casino gambling are betting on the success of the familiar appeal that it will provide more money for public schools. But the state, like most of the nation, is spending record amounts on public schools. If money and educational achievement were linked, we'd have a surplus of national merit scholars.

Indiana is one of many success stories. The state has just begun its second year of a voucher program. Parents can decide where to send their kids, whether to public, private secular, religious or charter schools. As World Magazine recently reported, "About 300 private, largely Christian schools in the state are accepting voucher students -- and gaining a financial boost as they arrive." So much else is working in Indiana under GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels and a Republican legislature (with occasional help from some Democrats), it is unlikely the school voucher program will fail.

According to World Magazine, 10 states and the District of Columbia now offer a variety of school voucher options. In his 2010 fiscal year budget, President Barack Obama attempted to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants vouchers to low-income students so they can attend private schools, but after an outcry from parents and stinging editorials in Washington's newspapers, he let the program proceed, at least until children already in the program had a chance to graduate.

"The president doesn't believe that vouchers are a long-term answer to our educational problems and the challenges that face our public school system ..." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered in 2009. Sen. Joe Lieberman and House Speaker John Boehner disagreed, fought for school choice and succeeded in reaching an agreement with the president to fully implement the D.C. voucher program. "For eight years, this scholarship program has empowered low-income parents to choose the best learning environment for their children," Mr. Boehner said in June. "Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there's strong evidence that it's both effective and cost-effective."

This is a political advantage for Republicans, as many African-American and Hispanic families are supportive of school choice. Most of these are Democratic voters, but nothing appeals to a parent more than safeguarding their children's future. Mitt Romney and Republicans running for Congress should take note of the Chicago teachers strike and claim school choice as their own.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He may be reached at tmseditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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