Make Parents Responsible for Schools

Here’s a recent letter to the Baltimore Sun:

May 11, 2016
Editor, the Baltimore Sun

Dear Editor,

Kurt Schmoke, Matt Gallagher and Tom Wilcox ask “Who’s responsible for city schools?” (Commentary, May 9, 2016). The broad answer to that question is also the fundamental reason why our city schools stay mediocre to poor, decade after decade, like too many government schools across the country. That is, the schools are accountable upward in a political hierarchy to elected or appointed officials.

They should be accountable downward to parents.

In response to “legislation that will eventually add two elected members to the city Board of School Commissioners,” Messrs. Schmoke, Gallagher, and Wilcox recommend “mayoral control”–mayoral appointment of the whole board. Their confidence in getting the “right” procedure for deciding the officials in charge is misplaced. Yes, having “a school board appointed by the mayor” would make it “crystal clear who is ultimately responsible.” But that clarity does not assure quality. Suppose the mayor appoints a mediocre board and the schools stay mediocre? What can parents do then but wait for the next election?

Political responsibility for schooling has failed our children for decades. There is a better way. Make schools immediately responsible to parents. Take the tax money for schooling away from the bureaucracy and give it to the parents instead, to spend on whatever schooling they see fit for their children. Open up their options to whatever private-sector schools educational entrepreneurs might offer.

An explosion of new schooling options would ensue. Some of these would fail to satisfy enough parents and disappear. Over time, however, not tied into a top-down, politicized school “system,” we would discover the different approaches that work well for different children. Every parent would become a school inspector with budgetary authority. Every school would have to earn children’s funding or close.

There are different approaches for putting parents in charge, from the voucher system advocated by Milton Friedman in 1962, to tuition tax credits, to Educational Savings Accounts such as are used in Arizona, to tax credits for donations to scholarship-awarding institutions. Any of these approaches would make parents, not politicians and bureaucrats, responsible for city schools. That’s the key to improvement.

Howard Baetjer Jr.
Department of Economics
Towson University

Update: The Baltimore Sun published this letter, but somehow I missed it. Here is the Sun‘s version.

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