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Time for conservatives to get progressive on education reform

Americans of all ideologies want kids to have an opportunity for a great education. But the national education debate is often more turf war than policy discussion. Conventional public schools are pitted against alternatives such as private and charter schools at every turn. While adults are busy playing this zero-sum game, kids are getting lost in the middle.

It’s time for a new approach that recognizes all types of schools can serve the public good and that public money should follow students to the school that’s right for them. And, as a free-market conservative and mother of two school-age children, I’m practicing what I preach.

For years, my kids attended a private Catholic school. But this year, they are enrolled at a traditional school district — and the process has been enlightening.

First — I’ll say it — there are some great public schools out there. My district school, outside Philadelphia, is in a prosperous neighborhood, is well funded, and doesn’t have a crime problem. Like many districts, it has what it needs to provide kids with a quality education.

Public school districts educate more than 80 percent of the nation’s students, and I wish every one of those students had a chance to learn in a safe, high-quality school.

But take a short drive to Philadelphia and the difference is stark — you’ll find a district home to half of the state’s worst-performing public schools. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, parents regularly face headlines describing embezzlement and violence. Erie and Pittsburgh school districts also are struggling financially and academically.

Despite record funding levels, in certain cases, good options are limited to the wealthy or those who literally win the lottery for a charter school seat.

In America, that’s unacceptable.

The solution is for funding to follow students to the schools they choose, whether public or private. Education scholar Ashley Berner calls this educational pluralism, and though it’s standard operating procedure in many other countries, states are the proving ground for this approach in America.

In Pennsylvania, for example, state House Speaker Mike Turzai has introduced legislation, HB 1800, that would grant scholarships for Harrisburg students to attend private schools — or to cover the cost of education at superior neighboring public school districts.

This solution combines public and private options, rather than forcing parents to choose a side in the education turf war. A similar program in Milwaukee has grown 100 times larger since its first year.

Another Pennsylvania bill would help military families whose unique needs aren’t best served by a rigid system. These families often jump from school to school with little control over what school district they’ll end up in. That’s why state Rep. Andrew Lewis, a military veteran, has proposed legislation that would enable military families to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, software or curriculum using publicly-funded education scholarship accounts, patterned after successes in Arizona.

This targeted reform addresses practical problems faced by our nation’s heroes and should bring both sides together.

Sadly, those who often claim the mantle of progress, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, are the ones insisting school districts are the only legitimate avenue to education success. They want an education monopoly even though parents want choice.

Conservatives, that’s our opening to lead a progressive education revolution. And criminal justice reform should be our model.

For decades, conservative politicians were “tough on crime” despite the human cost. But after over-incarceration became a great injustice — costing billions of dollars and wasting thousands of lives — conservatives led the reform movement, prompting progressive icon Van Jones to give us energetic praise.

We can repeat that success by acknowledging the value provided by many conventional public schools — which educate most students, including mine — while pushing for progressive change in the laboratories of democracy. Meanwhile, anyone who believes that monopolies are bad for consumers in the marketplace should take the same stance regarding our education system.

Only then will we come together and ensure American education fulfills its legacy as the great equalizer.

Jennifer Stefano is vice president and chief innovation officer at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferStefano.

Tags Alternative education Education Education economics Elizabeth Warren public schools School choice

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