Opinion: Columnists

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." This oft-quoted line from then-Gov. of Massachusetts Calvin Coolidge, in response to the 1919 Boston Police Strike, might be updated to include "the public interest" as well as safety.

And there are few matters of public interest greater than educating the next generation. Chicago Public Schools 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.

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% 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% measured in Gallup's 2007 and 2008 Confidence in Institution polls." The high, of 58 percent, came in 1973.

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 Democratic politicians can reap political benefits -- and contributions -- from teachers unions.

Politicians often 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 Gov. Mitch Daniels and a Republican legislature (with occasional help from some Democrats) that 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 fiscal 2010 budget, President Obama attempted to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants vouchers to low-income students. 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 restore 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," 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 parents 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.

Examiner Columnist Cal Thomas is nationally syndicated by Tribune Media.

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