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  • John Garen, PhD

Want to give parents lasting power?

By John Garen, PhD

Parents are increasingly concerned about the content of many public schools’ curricula as well as the openness of public school officials to hearing parents’ concerns. This has led to increased calls for greater transparency and for school administrators to show a greater tolerance for parents “having their say.”

While these are important, my view is that transparency and openness to parents will never provide the lasting power they seek without school choice. Having information about each school, as well as access to school officials, can be of substantial assistance to parents in determining whether a school is suited for their child and how well the school is performing.

However, if a parent determines, either through transparency or other means, that a school is wrong for their child, what can be done about it? With public schools (and with private schools), complaints may be lodged and discussions with the school held. But what if nothing is done to address a parent's concerns? In a public school setting, a parent might engage in the time-consuming process of appealing to or schmoozing higher levels of the public school bureaucracy.

Alternatively, a parent might begin the arduous political process to fashion a majority of parents, or cobble together a big enough parental interest group, to influence district and school policies. But these political or schmoozing efforts may not work. All the while, their child suffers.

Parents might also pick up and move to a different school catchment zone or school district. Of course, this too is a burdensome way for parents to find schools that suit their kids.

Each of the above impediments to empowering parents is true regardless of how transparent or open to comment schools are. Transparency and openness may help to put political pressure on school officials, but the political game still must be played.

In a system of parental choice and robust school competition, the dissatisfied parent simply moves their child to another school. End of story. No need to engage in political wangling and schmoozing, or to change residence.

Some have argued such a system is problematic for low-income families. However, public schools in Kentucky are, on average, funded to the tune of around $15,000 per pupil. Surely this is plenty of resources to adequately assist low-income families by awarding them vouchers or education saving accounts, as well as "coaching" them on how use the funds.

In nearly all areas of our lives, we do not rely on having to engage the political process or change neighborhoods in order to acquire many basic goods in our lives, including our clothing, the food we eat, the doctor we have, or the newspapers we read. And for good reason. Just like food stamps don't belong to Kroger or Walmart, education dollars don't belong to any particular school. Instead, that money belongs to families. If we want to truly empower parents, we should let them have the power to decide where to spend their tax dollars.

John Garen, PhD, is BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky. He is a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.


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