For parents, school choice is easier than ballot initiatives 

There’s a grass-roots parent revolt surging in California. Parents statewide and at the local level are pushing ballot measures to overturn unpopular government education policies. While the initiative process may be Democracy 101 in action, it would be easier for parents if they were simply given vouchers to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Chris Miller, a single mother of two, has spearheaded a drive that qualified a measure for the November ballot in San Francisco that would make neighborhood proximity the priority factor in assigning students. Currently, students are placed in a lottery system, which tries to achieve a level blend of students at schools based on ethnicity, income and achievement. The system has forced children to be bused to faraway schools and has sent siblings to different schools.

“We are a group of very angry San Francisco parents,” Miller told the news site. “The social engineering has got to stop in San Francisco before all the families are driven out.”

Instead of daunting and expensive ballot campaigns, however, there’s an easier alternative for parents who feel they’re stuck in a public-education system that ignores their concerns.

If the state attached funding to every child in California in the form of a voucher and allowed him or her to take that funding to the public or private school of his or her choice, parents dissatisfied with government social-engineering schemes could place their children immediately in more congenial private schools.

A disturbing aspect of these government social-engineering schemes is that they affect families regardless of their income background, ethnicity, religion or the performance of their public schools on standardized tests. That’s why school-choice instruments such as vouchers should be universally available to all parents and their children as they are in countries like Sweden.

In contrast to government social engineering, school choice is ideologically neutral. A universal voucher program takes no sides on whether one type of curriculum or teaching is better than another. Rather, choice empowers parents to make that call and decide which school is best for their children.

The late Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, who was the godfather of the modern school-choice movement, observed that the public schools teach “a set of values and beliefs that constitute a religion in all but name.” The current system, he said, forces parents “to pay to have their children indoctrinated” in the public schools. School choice allows children to escape this indoctrination, saves parents the trouble of overturning unpopular policies through initiatives, and forces the government to think twice about politicizing public education.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

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