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Vouchers and equal education

FIFTY YEARS after Brown v. Board of Education struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal," genuine equality of education remains a distant dream. The state of public schooling in general these days is nothing to boast about, but for black and Hispanic kids in particular, it is shocking. Disparities in education have become so pronounced, as the scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have shown, that the average black high school senior today is less competent in reading, math, and history than the average white eighth-grader.

Not all of this is the fault of the schools. As the Thernstroms stress in "No Excuses," their recent book on the racial learning gap, culture is critical: Students who do well academically are more likely to come from homes where expectations are high, the work ethic is strong, and the TV is turned off.

But crummy schools are clearly part of the problem, and few are crummier than the dreadful urban public schools in which so many minority kids are trapped. For countless families in inner-city neighborhoods, these dead-end facilities are the only educational option there is. They can't afford the escape hatch of private or parochial school, and they can't send their children to better public schools because there aren't any where they live.

The Supreme Court in Brown described education as "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments" -- so important that "it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education." Such an opportunity, it held, "must be made available to all on equal terms."

Half a century later, Jim Crow is dead and local officials no longer segregate schools by race. Yet Brown's core promise -- educational opportunity "available to all on equal terms" -- is still a mirage. Though per-student spending has soared and a vast new army of teachers has been hired, the quality of public education remains wildly unequal: occasionally high, typically mediocre, but far too often abysmal. And no one is more likely to be stuck with the worst schools, the most burnt-out teachers, or the least responsive administrators than the very students Brown was meant to rescue: poor blacks.

By now it is obvious that spending even more money and hiring even more teachers isn't going to bring about the equality that Brown called for. Neither will shifting students around on the basis of skin color, as decades of forced busing certainly proved.

So maybe it's time to try a really radical reform: choice.

Education policy in the United States treats Americans as too incompetent to provide for their children's schooling. Unlike food or clothing or health care -- where the market generates lots of options and parents are free to choose among them -- education is mostly supplied on the Soviet model: Schooling is "free," but the schools are owned and operated by the state. A small fraction of parents pay to educate their children privately, but the great majority simply take what the state supplies.

The public education system is essentially a monopoly, and like most monopolies, it wastes money, performs indifferently, and doesn't much care if its customers -- American mothers and fathers -- are satisfied. But give those mothers and fathers the same freedom of choice when it comes to their kids' education that they have when it comes to their kids' shoes or dinner, and all of that would change.

State and local governments should stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars to run public schools directly. Instead they should spend the money on vouchers that would let parents freely choose the schools their children attend. Education would still be compulsory. It would still be publicly financed. But no longer would it be the inferior, one-size-fits-all product of sclerotic government bureaucracies. Vouchers would transform education into a vibrant and competitive free market, with all the innovation, flexibility, and accountability that implies.

This is not a new idea. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed it as far back as 1962 in his classic work, "Capitalism and Freedom." If universal school choice had been adopted when he first suggested it, can anyone doubt that American education today would be radically improved? Choice and competition have led to revolutionary advances in virtually every area of modern life, from cars to computers to communications. But public education remains a backwater, sluggish, unimaginative, and essentially unchanged from 50 -- or 150 -- years ago. For two generations we have claimed that educational equality is a constitutional right. The way to finally make good on that claim is to offer a voucher of equal value to the parents of every child -- letting the funding follow the student, no matter who runs the school. Putting power in the hands of parents is the real key to equality -- and the key to excellence, too. Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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