03/04/2013 06:58 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

On School Choice


Something remarkable is occurring in the arena of schools: shopping. Not late summer back-to-school specials or runs on novelty lunch-boxes, but shopping for schools themselves.

As a father of three who are rapidly entering school age, I've been presented with the time-consuming but enviable task of picking where my kids are going to spend the majority of their waking lives for the next twelve years. And what a field to choose from! We have charter schools, magnet schools, STEM schools, private schools, virtual schools, socially-accepted home schooling, tax credit tuition assistance, scholarships, open enrollment and any number of permutations of the same. It's a kaleidoscope, a veritable cornucopia of options. In short, I can reasonably expect to send my children to any school I can imagine. And there are a lot of them now.

A generation ago, parents might debate the merits of the school district they lived in. If they felt really strongly about it and had the financial ability, they could move. Alternatively, if they had the means, they could consider a private school. Public or private; the choice spread was akin to white or wheat in the bread aisle.

But winds of change have risen, and risen quickly. To most of us, it's a breath of fresh air offering hope and alternatives to a moribund, bloated, underperforming status quo. To others, the winds of change blow chilly, forcing a collective hunching and collar turning.

To wit:

Picture an information session for Tucson's BASIS school at the local library. No need to ask which room is hosting the gathering; the steady stream of steely-eyed parents marks the way. Consistently ranked in the nation's top-performing schools, BASIS is a charter school that demands (and gets) performance from its students. It unapologetically insists on a love of learning and sets high standards, achieving astounding results with less per-student expenditure than the public school system at large. The teachers are funny and enthusiastic and are not required to be state certified. They are only required to (gasp!) be good at what they teach...

Needless to say, rumor of their imminent first-time offering of a K-4 program had the town in a tither. They had also clearly underestimated their market share: The room rapidly filled to beyond capacity and parents leaned through the doorways into a standing-room-only crowd. The teachers and staff looked baffled but pleased as piercing questions ricocheted around the room. These parents were motivated!

Discussion quickly devolved into the controversial "lottery." BASIS, because it faces real-life constraints of the physical and economic universe, cannot build schools fast enough to house everyone who wants to go. They have therefore had to resort to a lottery system of admittance. I myself expect word on the lottery results this afternoon. I optimistically give our kids a 50/50 shot... Tortuous uncertainty, yes, but wholly, infinitely better than assured mediocrity.

And it's not just BASIS that has parents on the prowl. In addition to the vibrant charter system, private schools are suddenly available to all. The Arizona legislature has enacted rules that allow citizens to divert a portion of their tax burden toward any school or child's tuition they desire. Any parent with a modicum of chutzpah (and it takes some!) can solicit their taxpaying friends and neighbors to help finance their children's education. Of course, it frustrates bureaucrats who are concerned that parents will take children out of underperforming public schools and enter the roles of "discriminating" parochial schools. They will; touché...

Statists declaim that these newly-funded private schools will not be held to the same exacting test standards as public schools (if only!), and that parochial schools may allow kids to "fall behind." Behind whom, pray tell? Croatia? At best, the United States is flailing in the middle of the international pack, and our results (particularly in math) are embarrassing, despite our spending the second-most per pupil in the world. This irony is lost on Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who exhorts us to "...get much more serious about investing in education." Another few billion ought to do it probably...

Public schools themselves are catching on. Where once "districts" reigned supreme, parents can now enroll their children in better performing public schools regardless of accidents of geography. So even if the new-fangled school options like virtual academies or STEM schools don't appeal to parents, they still get to choose! Statists, predictably, express vehement concerns that kids will "fall behind" in these upstart opportunities. By objecting, they betray a fundamental lack of faith in parents who are presumably motivated enough to take their kids out of failing public schools but somehow become passive after making the switch. I trust parents more than that, I am one.

The fact is, many young parents perceive the public school system as wasting our money and our kid's time. Its less-than-stellar performance has, thankfully for us, created the conditions for alternatives to spontaneously arise and offer us an alternative. We now shop. This force, the collective demand for results, will only improve the lot for American kids.

The winds of competition can be uncomfortably brisk, but they do a marvelous job of clearing the cobwebs...