Tuesday, February 21, 2006
On this day:

Competing for students

Almost 10% of Alabama's school-age population now attends private schools, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, as cited in Monday's Birmingham News:

From 1990 to 2002, the number of Alabama children enrolled in private schools grew by 45 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducts a study of private school enrollment every two years. The 2003-04 study hasn't been published yet.

"Nationally, the numbers of students enrolled in private schools haven't had significant growth over the years," said Steve Broughman, statistician for the center. "That doesn't seem to be the case in Alabama." ...

Alabama has more than 76,000 students enrolled in private schools, while public school systems have 743,604 students.

These new statistics may be disturbing to some people in the state's public education establishment; if they're not, they should be. They show that a growing number of Alabama families are losing confidence in a system that is hindered by centralization and a general lack of accountability.

Many "solutions" to the state's education woes have been proposed over the years: reduced class sizes, increased salaries for teachers, prettier buildings, more technology, revised curricula, and - of course - large increases in funding. Some of those have been good ideas, but almost none have cut to the core of the problem: the pressing need for more choices and greater accountability in education. Unfortunately, those aren't things that a government-run education system is very good at achieving on its own. It needs a forceful nudge from outside - one that is strong enough to overcome the resistance of bureaucracies and teachers unions. Experience shows that only one source is capable of providing that kind of kick-in-the-rear, and it's one we're all familiar with: the market.

Yes - the market. We trust it to supply us with food, shelter, health care, and entertainment, but when it comes to educating our kids, we defer to the government. That makes little sense. I'm not saying that we should privatize the public schools - at least not anytime soon. However, we should take steps to provide them with the same types of incentives that businesses face every day.

Those who support public education and have a sincere desire to make it better should welcome the fact that the system is being injected with a healthy dose of competition. They should encourage more where that came from, by supporting public school choice and tuition tax credits and/or vouchers. If Alabama's public schools are ever going to alleviate their persistent mediocrity, policitians and the AEA need to heed the message here and offer real, market-oriented solutions rather than the usual hand-wringing excuses.