Choice is an important weapon in the educational arms race

Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher is right. Ohio is engaged in an "economic development arms race" with other states and nations for investment and jobs. But the state is also in an arms race to educate its children to compete successfully with young people in other states and countries. Yet, we are struggling and Ohio, like the rest of the United States, has no chance of winning the economic development race if we don't at least win a silver medal in the education race. This point was hammered home in the highly regarded Achieve, Inc. report Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio (see here).

Considering the scale of the challenge, it is frustrating that Governor Strickland and his allies in the Statehouse and in the professional education lobby groups seek to kill the state's voucher program outright while freezing charter schools in their tracks.

The governor recently told the Columbus Education Association's Voice newsletter (see here) that, "I believe the court of public opinion regarding vouchers is beginning to change. They're destructive to our students and wasteful of our tax dollars." The governor also challenged charter schools when he referenced his first State of the State address, "I wanted a lull in the for-profit management charter companies and a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools." The governor has promised to veto the Special Education Scholarship Program currently working its way through the Senate.

Comments that vouchers are "destructive" and "wasteful" will no doubt sting many of the philanthropists in Dayton and elsewhere who have invested more than $10 million dollars in the past decade in private vouchers allowing thousands of children in troubled schools to opt out for private schools.

Three words bear repeating from the preceding paragraph: "troubled schools" and "children" and let us hope the governor remembers them. Vouchers aren't for students in any school. They're for children trapped in persistently failing public schools. Bad schools. What does the governor plan for them instead? We actually don't know. We're still waiting on his ideas, which won't be revealed until next March.

The effort to place an ironclad moratorium on charters also will likely surprise community leaders in Columbus who are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and much of their time and personal commitment, to help open high-performing KIPP schools in Columbus in 2008 and beyond. Stopping the growth of decent charter schools also would create a bind for philanthropists and business leaders in Cleveland who are investing millions to help the Cleveland Metropolitan School District partner with high-performing charter models.

Contrast the efforts to curtail choice in Ohio with the efforts of Democrats like D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Fenty is asking Congress to invest $18 million in the District's Opportunity Scholarship voucher program (see here). In Newark, N.J., Democratic Mayor Cory Booker is working with leading national and Newark-based foundations to raise $25 million to support and strengthen Newark's 12 high-performing public charter schools. The mayor summed the effort up thusly, "I'm not concerned if they are charter or traditional public schools, my concern is that they are schools of excellence" (see here).

When it comes to urban-school reform, thoughtful philanthropists and business leaders are diversifying their investments. They support vouchers, charter schools, and other reforms because they're innovative public-private partnerships that leverage state dollars to create quality school-choice options. Savvy education investors know there is no silver bullet for fixing troubled urban schools. Therefore, they invest in both promising district reform efforts and promising choice efforts. Hundreds of millions have been invested over the past decade in trying to turn around troubled public district schools in America. A few efforts have shown success, many others have not. Millions of private dollars have also been invested in Ohio's charter and choice programs since the late 1990s.

Fordham, for one, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Dayton-area charter schools. Some are succeeding. Others have struggled and some have closed. This trial and error is the way innovation works. We've learned much and we are now far more selective in what and whom we invest in. We also have supported improvements to the state's charter law that have focused on results and improved accountability.

Now is not the time for state government or Ohio's private investors to turn their backs on school choice. Do we need to work smarter and hold these schools accountable for results? Yes, but giving up on school choice completely would be akin to a unilateral disarmament in the effort to help all children succeed educationally. It would result in putting all of our hopes in fixing what ails public education into the sporadic reform efforts of long-suffering, traditional public schools. In troubled times, investors are smart to diversify their bets.

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