The President on Education – Choice and Vouchers

In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized the role of education in our economic recovery.  It is education that gives the middle class opportunity for participation in our economy.  The President is right.  Education’s potential for producing that outcome depends, however, upon two fundamental elements that underlie his thesis.  The first is market-based choice in education and the second is the money necessary for the children of working class parents.

A local friend of mine produces annually a map of high- and low-scoring school districts from his company, Maps & Facts, Unlimited.  The map is one of my favorites; it uses red for high scoring districts and blue for those that yield low or failing scores on standardized tests.  There is little surprise in the location of the red and blue on the map.  The top-scoring school districts are those with the highest per capita income where the best-educated parents live.

America’s promise of opportunity is belied by the increasingly differential opportunity that our children have based on their parents’ education and income.  If America is to make good on its promise – and sustain its economic prowess – change is essential.  Like their wealthier counterparts, poor children must have access to quality education. The President is right.

What is essential, however, is the means to educational access.  Already the President is making clear that parents deserve choice.  He did so via the Department of Education’s new College Scorecard that reveals important data about costs of higher education.  But that same commitment to giving students and their parents a choice should be extended to K-12 education as well.  Allowing more charter schools and providing students with vouchers makes available to working class parents what wealthier parents and their children already have – choice and the means to pay for it.

All of America’s citizens deserve educational opportunity.  Education drives economic growth along with market-based technological innovation.  Making education available to all, however, is the challenge.

For too long we have been reticent to let the market and market information drive educational choice.  The Department of Education’s website is a step in the right direction.  For too long we have assumed that poor children must accept only their local school.  And that local school may not be the best choice for some children from less wealthy households anymore than it is for some children from the wealthiest.  Vouchers give to the poor what the wealthy have long had – the means to that choice.  Let’s look for more action from Washington that encourages states and local school districts to act in favor of open enrollment opportunity and the money to make choice real for all.


College Complexities

In previous blogs, I have observed how complex the challenges of higher education really are.  The news from three recent, separate sources, when considered together, confirm its complexity and also once again raise concerns about the capacity of U. S. higher education to respond to our growing needs for sophisticated human capital as a foundation of our economic competitiveness.

On Sunday West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin called on state governors to focus this year on higher education productivity – e.g., enrollment, persistence, and graduation.  Governor Manchin is the new Chair of the National Governor’s Association.

And just five days earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that low and moderate income students are less likely today to enroll in college, underlining the Governor’s call for a focus on productivity.  The Wall Street Journal summarized a report to Congress from the Advisory Committee on Financial Assistance; compared with 1992, the percentage of low income students who enroll in college has fallen 14 percentage points with only 40% enrolling by 2004.  For moderate income students, the burden of college expense had gone from 22% of family income to 26% of family income in the same period.

Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education added a third, but inter-related piece of news with its report by Goldie Blumenstyk.  Median family income of students in for-profit colleges is just $24,300, 60% of family income of public college and university students.

If we are to raise U. S. competitiveness and increase higher education productivity as called for by Governor Manchin, we must turn around the decline in enrollment among the lowest income group, and we must assure support for students from low income backgrounds who are increasingly choosing for-profit schools for their education.