The simple logic of school choice The poor benefit, too


Jersey City, N.J. -- NEXT Tuesday, voters in California will express their opinions on the most important public policy issue since the Voting Rights Act.

The issue is school choice.

The California Education Association has spent more than $12 million on political advertising to defeat Proposition 174, an initiative that would enable parents to receive financial help from the government if they chose to send their children to nonpublic schools.

Because of the union's great financial resources, Proposition 174 may be defeated.

But even if it is, the politicians and special interests should restrain their glee, because support for school choice is cropping up everywhere, and ultimately will prevail.

School choice has long been a reality for the rich.

They can move to suburban districts where the public schools are decent, or if, like Bill Clinton, occupational requirements compel them to live in a city, they can send their children to high-quality private schools.

The poor are largely denied that opportunity. They are compelled by law to attend government schools, even when some of these schools are dysfunctional.

Here in Jersey City, we spend more than $9,000 per child (almost twice the national average) on our public schools, yet fewer than half our students graduate from high school.

Four years ago, the state took over the school system, promising to cut costs and improve the quality of education. Yet despite extra spending of $100 million, test scores and the dropout rate have not substantially improved.

At one high school, only 28 percent of the students passed this year's state basic skills tests.

Despite the school's evident failings, poor students who live near it must attend it -- even though there are readily available nonpublic schools that graduate more than 90 percent of their students while spending far less.

This year, the City Council and I tried to place a nonbinding referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot to advise the legislature that the people of this poor and middle-class city want school choice.

Some members of the teachers' union sued and knocked this measure off of the ballot on a technicality having to do with the jurisdiction of the council.

The union, which says it is interested in quality education, acted not only to thwart educational reform but even to deny the people their right to ask for educational opportunity.

Its desperation shows that the day of change is at hand.

Why do we allow the government to keep a monopoly on public education dollars when a voucher system could immediately expand educational opportunity for the poor, even as it saves tax dollars?

The poor cannot be held down forever. They will rise up and demand the educational opportunity that is the birthright of every American.

More than 30 years ago, Southern governors stood in schoolhouse doors to keep the disfranchised out, but history and the people pushed past them.

Before long, the obstructionists of this era will similarly be left behind.

Bret Schundler, a Republican, is mayor of Jersey City, N.J.

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