Lincoln warned that the United States could not long survive half slave and half free. To which one might ask, why not? The answer has to do with more than slavery and freedom. It has to do with the contradiction between one institution and the larger society in which it exists. When the institution is private, informal, and small, the inconsistency might be overlooked. But when the institution is pervasive, compulsory, and sanctioned by law, its opposition to the values governing the rest of society becomes more difficult to ignore. Like a foreign disk fed into the drive of an incompatible computer, its script is at odds with the language of its host.

Of course there have been times in our history when contradictory institutions have coexisted, when self“evident truths have been applied selectively or principles have been deemed appropriate for some but not for others”for example, slaveholders signing the Declaration of Independence, suffrage withheld from women, and segregation within a nation of citizens supposedly equal and free. These contradictions may persist for a while, abetted by ignorance, indifference, entrenched interest, or force. But ultimately the inconsistency becomes insupportable. The crossed beams and tortured arguments beneath its weight begin to buckle. Truth, like gravity, exerts its force over time.

Of course, this is not a passive process. Quite the opposite. Wars, civil agitation, protests, speeches, marches”the struggle for equality and freedom has required sacrifice, faith, and willingness to fight. Invariably it is pitched against larger forces, and waged against the odds. But the underdogs have always held one weapon against which their adversaries had no defense: truths which all agreed were true. Principles which, spoken loudly and often enough, morally disarmed those who claimed to subscribe to those principles, even as they clung to institutions that denied them.

Today such a contradiction obstructs the path to improving American education. We live in a society that thrives on democratic capitalism. This is a statement of fact that no one”from Jesse Helms on one end of the political spectrum to Hillary Rodham Clinton on the other”will dispute. Yet we operate our education system by principles diametrically opposed to democratic capitalism.

Democratic means many things, but it means at least this: that people have a say. We trust people to choose their party affiliation, their Congressmen, their Senators, their President”and through these representatives, their laws and government. We trust people not only to select politicians, but to do other, arguably even more dangerous, things. Like driving, for example. We let people have control over multi“ton vehicles”to choose their roads, pass cars, and drive at high speeds vehicles that are potential killers. We let people choose where to live, what to read, how to pray, whether to drink”in short, and within relatively moderate limits, how to live their lives. But we do not let people choose the education they would like for their children.

That’s one contradiction. The second is that America is not only a democratic country but a capitalist one as well. Suppliers compete for the choice, the business, of the individual. In all areas except one: education. As the late Al Shanker, former head of the American Federation of Teachers, observed:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the Communist economy than our own market economy.

Why don’t we apply democratic capitalism to education? There must be a very good reason for such a gross inconsistency.

It is not that the American founders wanted it this way. For the first 230 years of our history, parents, not government, were in charge. Competition kept quality high and costs low. Competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic was nearly universal at the time of the American Revolution. But by the mid“nineteenth century, a band of reformers led by Horace Mann of Massachusetts replaced our founding, free“market education system with a system of state“run education, with compulsory attendance and standardized curriculum.

It is not the case that, while the rest of America steams ahead on democratic capitalist principles, education flourishes on others. Education is far from flourishing. Despite a fourteen“fold increase in inflation“adjusted spending since 1920, longer school years, doubling of teachers’ salaries, and smaller class sizes, a quarter of young Americans have little to no grasp of written English, test scores have stagnated or declined, international rankings are beyond embarrassing, and census data show that public schools have become the second most likely place in America for a violent crime to be committed.

We should not be surprised. We’ve known forever that monopolies don’t work. We’ve known that the democratic“capitalist model”while not perfect”is vastly better than the centralized, state“run models that countries are abandoning, one by one, around the world. So why is education exempted from the model we apply to everything else in America? And how do we go about connecting education to the energy, creativity, and drive that powers democratic capitalism?

The answer is simple: put parents in charge. You can’t have a monopoly system if parents are in charge. The two simply cannot coexist. Parents will not voluntarily continue to send their children to schools that cannot teach or protect their children. Parents will not all choose the same, acme“brand education product. They will choose schools as various and unique as their children’s personalities, abilities, and dreams. And as newly energized, newly involved parents choose from multiple education suppliers, new sources of supply will emerge, and all will compete on cost, quality, and innovation.

Without parents in charge, no amount of “reform” is ever going to fix the monopoly. Seven waves of national reform have washed over an impervious education establishment, yet schools seem to get worse, not better, after every one. Without parents in charge no amount of money is ever going to be enough. Over a hundred studies have tried to show a connection between increased spending and increased learning; not one has succeeded. Without parents in charge, no increase in the number of school days is ever going to be enough, as even a cursory glance at international experience will confirm. Hong Kong, with its short school year, beats Japan in every math and science competition. Israel, with its long school year, can’t keep up with Belgium, which has the shortest school year in the world. Yet our politicians continue to propose longer school years”most recently, California Governor Gray Davis’ proposal to keep kids in school for an extra thirty days, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s call for weekend classes in science.

Ironically these ideas appeal to conservatives, sometimes even more than to liberals, because they sound tough and rigorous. Witness the calls for more testing, more discipline, school uniforms, or the new magic mantra of “accountability.” With due respect to the new administration in Washington, the issue is not accountability, but accountability to whom ? The question is not how high to set the standards, but standards set by whom ? By school boards? By governors? By the President of the United States? Or by parents?

Raising standards in the same old monopoly system isn’t going to change it into anything other than what it is. You can’t change a donkey into a horse. You can braid his tail and raise the bar, but that still isn’t going to make him jump. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are betting on the donkey. Over the years, the current system has attracted powerful commercial and political allies. If parents were in charge, those who benefit from the status quo would stand to lose a lot. And they know it.

Yet as long as we continue to debate how to fix the current monopoly, its defenders will always win. In a battle between two opposing sides, the one with the most consistent position necessarily has the edge. If we return to the beginning, if we start with first things, we will have a firmer foundation from which to argue, both logically and morally.

There is, for instance, this first thing: To whom was the child born? Not to a governor, not to a chancellor, not to a secretary of education. The child was born not to the government but to the parents. Therefore the parents, not the government, have a prior right”and thus primary responsibility”to determine the education of the child. This principle transcends ideological labels, party affiliations, even national boundaries. That parents have “a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” is affirmed in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This was a right American parents enjoyed for over two hundred years. Professional pundits and national experts are fond of bemoaning the disintegration of the American family”the alienation and lack of understanding between parents and their children. Having “outsourced” perhaps the family’s most important responsibility”education”and having barred parents from the most important rooms of their children’s lives, is it any wonder that the family’s form and function has become indeterminate, that parents and children live together, and yet a world apart?

Putting parents back in charge of their children’s education would have a transforming effect on many levels”on the child, on the family, on the teaching profession, on schools, on communities. With parents in the driver’s seat, schools would compete to attract students, the system would open up, and many new educational options would emerge. I’m not talking about a choice between public schools, parochial schools, and a few high“priced private schools. This is the present reality that we have to look beyond. I’m talking about a future in which parents could choose not just from A or B but from a new constellation of educational options ranging from A through Z.

That’s what the rest of America looks like, and what our education system can become. But we will never get from here to there as long as we continue to be sidetracked into marginal debates and technical arguments that obscure the deeper and, if you will, more elementary questions.

We have been sidetracked by failed attempts to enact school vouchers through state referenda. While I believe the voucher proponents have their hearts in the right place, their efforts have been Sisyphean: they spend vast amounts of capital pushing a stone uphill which, when it rolls back down, crushes the morale of reformers while reinforcing the hegemony of those who defend the status quo. The problem is that proponents are trying to sell one possible way of paying for something without ever describing what that something is. What that something is is putting parents in charge.

The powerful interests that work so tirelessly to maintain the failed system claim that fundamental changes would be too difficult and too disruptive. We should not let them get away with that argument. Of course there will be debates about the best method of paying for education when parents are put in charge. We would all continue to chip in with our tax dollars, and, given the progressive nature of our tax code, some would pay a great deal, some a little, some not at all. The government would continue to be the collection agent but not the sole supplier of the product. Instead, there would be multiple qualified suppliers”including the government. Parents would be free to choose among these suppliers and funding would be allocated on the basis of their choices.

Different states may choose to implement the specifics of this program differently. Frankly, overcoming the technical difficulties of funding will be far easier than overcoming the inertia, conventional wisdom, and the entrenched interests opposed to change. What will be required is nothing less than an awakening on a par with the great civil rights struggle of a half century ago. As Martin Luther King III has argued, putting parents in charge of their children’s education is perhaps the last great civil rights issue”and it is an idea whose time has come.

This is not a Republican idea, or a Democratic idea. It’s an American idea. Throughout our history people have defended the rights of ordinary Americans to make decisions, large and small, in their own lives. The right to sit where they want on a bus, and not be forced to the back. The right to sit at a lunch counter of a particular restaurant, and not be forced to patronize only the ones that accept “their kind.”

The exercise of these rights runs the gamut from the simple to the profound. But what could be more simple”and more profound”than the right to have a say in where your children go to school, who teaches them, and what they learn? If you’re affluent, you can buy this right, but not if you’re poor. The denial of this basic right, this fundamental choice, has no place in a country that prides itself on its democracy and free market. This contradiction cannot be justified, and should no longer be tolerated.

Theodore Forstmann is founder and president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund. His most recent initiative is Parents in Charge (www.parentsincharge.org), an organization that promotes parental choice in education.

Articles by Theodore Forstmann

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