August 28, 2009 -- Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty seemed silent and secretive about acting in the self-interest of his own children. Asked at a press conference about where his kids were attending school this academic year, he answered, in essence, “None of your business.” Why this sensitivity?
One of Fenty’s sons started school this year at Lafayette Elementary, a public—read government—school in D.C. But the neighborhood school to which kids at Fenty’s residential address would normally be assigned is West Elementary.
West is in a not-as-nice neighborhood. Greatschools gives it a 7 out of 10, still not too bad, and it is ranked the tenth best in D.C. by PSK12. It is 71 percent black.
So how did Fenty’s son get into Lafayette? There is a difficult competitive procedure by which D.C. parents might get their kids into better schools outside their neighborhoods if slots are available, but there’s no indication that this is what Fenty did. Top education officials also can allow kids to go to non-neighborhood schools in special cases but there is no obvious reason why Fenty’s kids deserve special treatment.
So why won’t Fenty discuss his son’s school and why does anyone care where he sends his kids in any case?
The D.C. government schools are notoriously bad; the American Legislative Exchange Council [PDF] ranked them dead last when compared to the fifty states, yet they are ranked first in expenditures per pupil. Talk about a terrible return for your tax dollar! What a striking refutation of the “more money will solve the problem” philosophy!
D.C. government schools are ranked them dead last compared to the fifty states, but first in expenditures per pupil.
Mayor Fenty took control of this worst-in-the-nation system and wants to make it better. But he still supports the status-quo government model. For example, in early 2009 his fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress wanted to eliminate a program that granted a small number of low-income parents vouchers with which they could send their children to better schools. Fenty supported continuation of the program for parents who already had vouchers but sided with those who would eliminate all future vouchers.
As a show of support for D.C. schools, Fenty had pledged to keep his own kids in that system. At least he’s more consistent than President Obama who opposes parental choice of schools for their children while sending his own kids to a pricy private school rather than to a D.C. government one. Still, Fenty opens himself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Did he use his political influence to get his kids into a better school while generally supporting a system that assigns kids to particular schools—good or bad—whether or not their parents want their kids in those schools, all the while opposing expanded parental choice via vouchers?
Fenty would not be in this awkward position if he’d embrace a morality of rational self-interest. Among its premises:
But government schools fly in the face of this morality. They transfer resources, in the form of taxes, from parents (as well as from most other citizens, whether they have kids in school or not) to government bureaucrats who determine where their children must go to schools and how those resources will be spent. Parents have no say in the matter. If parents want to send their children to better, non-government schools, they must pay out of their own pockets on top of the tax dollars they were forced to turn over to the government for inferior services that they don’t want.
So how could Fenty run a school system based on rational self-interest? As a first step, he could allow all parents to send their children to any school they want, with their tax dollars allocated to the schools of the parents’ choice. But you say, if most of the D.C. schools are so bad, wouldn’t all parents want to send their children to the Lafayettes, which simply wouldn’t have room, while abandoning the majority of low-performing schools?
Yes! And that’s why the second step should be to get the government out of the business of running schools altogether. Privatize them all. Let them compete. Let the owners of the newly-privatized Lafayette buy out the bad schools, fire the incompetent teachers and administrators, and compete for parents’ dollars the way every grocery and consumer electronics store competes for their customers.
The parents of D.C., who have suffered so long with inferior schools, deserve nothing less than what’s in their self-interest: freedom of choice and control of their own money. That’s the lesson that all should learn!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.