At the Precipice: Will Tennessee Lead on Universal School Choice?

I recently read an article entitled, “Vouchers could keep kids out of crowded schools” in my local newspaper. The author made some excellent points, particularly that vouchers would not reduce funding for public schools and that parents of poor students should have the option of attending a private school versus an overcrowded public school. I agree with his reasoning, and I believe that parents should have several options available to them in educating their children. But I disagree with the notion that school choice should only be available to lower income students. Why should the income of a student’s parent determine whether he or she receives the best education available? Is that fair? Who has the unenviable task of determining the income level cutoff point? For too long, politicians have tried dividing us along income levels. But that’s another fight for another day.

The truth is our education system needs serious reform. Top down, one-size-fits-all approaches decreed from Washington, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, continue to fail our kids. Exhibit A is a Huffington Post article from July 2012 entitled “U.S. students still lag behind foreign peers: Schools make little progress in improving achievement.” The article, citing a Harvard study, reported American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. The study measured students from 49 countries. Experts concur our nation’s economic growth is imperiled by our inadequate progress in mathematics.

To realize education reform, we should empower parents and students by extending school choice to all Tennesseans. Gov. Haslam and the General Assembly face a unique opportunity to implement free market principles into our education system and propel Tennessee in leading the nation’s educational reform. School choice gives parents a seat at the table in determining the best way to educate their children, whether it be public, private, charter or home schooling. Teachers will benefit from the increased competition of private and charter schools, as school officials will do everything possible to retain or attract the best teachers. Educators will achieve additional employment opportunities from new schools. School boards will no longer face the daunting task of drawing arbitrary school district lines and the ensuing wrath of unhappy parents forced to send their kids to a particular school.

Whether most Americans realize it or not, the verdict is in on the advantages of school choice. America leads the world in university education because we essentially have a free-market system. According to US News and World Report’s 2012 rankings, American universities landed 14 of the world’s top 25 rankings for best universities, including the top ranking. Two of the the top 25 are American public universities (Michigan and Berkeley). School choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The lingering question is whether our elected state and local officials truly believe in the power of the free market system and are willing to expend the political capital to do what is best for our students, parents and teachers.

Justin Wax is a graduate of MTSU and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is a Murfreesboro businessman and father of two.

Note: This article was first published in the Daily News Journal on February 1, 2013.