Inner-city Parents Desperately Desire to Bail Kids Out of Failing Public Schools

Regardless of party identification, gender or race, in poll after poll, education consistently registers among voters' top concerns. Parents see lower test scores, rising drop out rates, and an economy increasingly driven by a high tech workforce, and they are becoming angry.

The fear and frustration is especially high in poor urban areas with high minority populations and some of the worst performing schools. Many parents in those areas are pleading for the right to choose a way out for their children. Currently, this right is only granted to those with means – means to fund private tuition or to purchase a home in a school district known for quality education. Those without means are sentenced to send their children to failing schools and a future laden with unnecessary obstacles to the American dream. It doesn't have to be this way.

Those who would block the exit to the schoolhouse door employ many arguments to justify their position. One of the most common assertions is that there is limit to who private schools would take. Private schools, the argument goes, would take the best and the brightest, leaving the government-run school with the rest. In other words, the public schools are so worried about their ability to compete that they think they would be left with only the children that no one else wants.

This proposition, however, ignores the reality of the private market, and what is already happening in communities all across the country. The genius of the market is that it hates a vacuum. As long as there are consumers with the ability to fund an enterprise (i.e., parents with the ability to spend their education tax dollars on the school of their choice), there will always be entrepreneurs willing to serve them. After all, if private enterprise only served the "cream of the crop," there wouldn't be a Wal-Mart or a Wendy's.

This isn't just an economic theory. The private market is already entering into the educational arena to serve the very students status quo defenders are terrified they'll be stuck with. For example, a Nashville-based for-profit corporation called "Community Education Partners" is currently contracting with school districts across the country to educate students at-risk of dropping out. Their program works with some of the most difficult students, offering structure and self-paced learning with the aid of computers, videos, student collaboration and learning managers. The program has been praised by its customers, including the Houston school board, which contracted with the company for 1,500 of its at-risk students. They also have contracts with several juvenile justice departments to run alternative education programs for students who have been expelled.

The real beauty of the private arrangement is something government-run schools just can't match: financial accountability. As Dallas Superintendent Bill Rojas commented after contracting with Community Education Partners to help 1,500 of their at-risk students, "If they don't perform, you don't pay them."

Other companies are receiving contracts from districts to run entire schools. The most prominent of these companies is the Edison Schools. Edison is now operating approximately 80 public schools, including many charter schools, for a total of more than 38,000 students nationwide.

Edison administrators use the same funds that the school districts would have used to operate the schools chosen for their project. They succeed where the school district had previously failed, however, because the private firm uses innovative methods to improve lagging test scores and to stimulate students, including using longer school hours and the latest classroom technologies.

While school boards continue to experiment with allowing these private companies to come into their districts on a very limited and controlled basis, the parents with children in failing schools are getting impatient. They don't want choice because of some great ideological reason. They don't want choice because they are anti-government or anti-teacher union. The demand erupts from a fundamental understanding by parents that there is no future for children trapped in schools that don't give them the intellectual tools needed to succeed in today's world.

These parents are unlikely to be motivated by a romanticized notion of the market or the public education system. But they do understand that both public schools and the market respond to clients who have the power to grant or withhold revenues needed for their survival. As they know better than anyone, it is not the market by itself that makes choice work for the poor. It's giving poor people the resources to prod the market to fill their niche.