Breaking Education Monopolies

May 9, 2014

(ABC) -- When a grocer sells bad milk, customers are free to shop at another store. If there is no other store, a new one will be opened, promising and providing fresh milk. The first grocery store must then either offer fresh milk or lose its customers to the store that provides what is needed.

The message is simple: if you’d like to be a successful grocer, sell fresh milk.

This principle—that people are free to choose among alternatives—operates in almost every aspect of our society. But imagine if this sour-milk grocery store were state-owned, the only grocer in town, and that you were barred from shopping at grocers outside the city limits. Then, imagine that laws barred any new, privately managed grocery stores from opening. In effect, you would be forced to purchase milk at a store that sells bad milk or go without milk altogether. The grocer would have a monopoly on milk.

While such limitations would be ridiculous in the world of groceries, it is all too common in education. For many families trapped in failing schools, the only way to access a quality education is to leave their homes for another district or take on extreme financial burdens to cover tuition at a private school. Across America, children are told that because they live in one area they can only attend one school whether that school is good or bad.

Yet the metaphor between grocers and education is imperfect. People don’t need milk. But without education, citizens of a free society are left without the ability to build a better life, the skills to support their families and communities, and the means to fully participate in the political process.

The overwhelming majority of students stuck in failing schools live in poor areas plagued by immobility and intergenerational poverty. Though a good education offers people one of the best means to prosper in the world, that opportunity is hindered by monopolies of education.

We must break these monopolies of education. Families should have a choice and options, because when parents are provided options, they can send their kids to the best possible school rather than being forced to send their children to the school dictated by district lines.

However, allowing more school choice does not mean spurning district schools or favoring charter schools. Free choice precludes favoritism. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, should be allowed to start and flourish, yet they should also be free to fail. Students should be the center of our education system, and if a school fails to educate its students, it has no right to continue as usual. Like the grocer, it must either change to provide what people need or step aside for those who can provide.

There are currently 6,004 charter schools across the U.S., and, over the last district-work period, I urged members of Congress to visit their local charter schools and see how innovation and freedom influence education. This week, the House will vote on the bipartisan Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act to support choice, innovation, and excellence in education through the start-up, expansion, and replication of successful charter schools. This bill is a small but important step toward freeing education to give children the opportunity they deserve to succeed.

But more must be done. Charter schools provide a vital avenue of opportunity for those stuck in a failing or deficient school system.

Just look at Grimmway Academy in Arvin, California, which serves disadvantaged students, over 90 percent of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch. A successful businesswoman, Barbara Grimm, offered college scholarships to kids in her community, but year after year had funds leftover because too few students got in to college. Barbara realized the kids needed better preparation before applying to college, so she founded an elementary charter school, Grimmway Academy, in 2011. In only three years, Grimmway Academy is now recognized as a California Distinguished School whose students have the highest test scores in the district.

Grimmway Academy serves hundreds of the now 2.3 million students in charter schools, but an estimated 920,000 students sit on waiting lists. That means there are 920,000 students attempting to enter a school they and their families think will better fit their needs, but they can’t because there is not enough supply to fulfill their demand.

Who are we to tell these parents and children “no”? Those who oppose charter schools and free choice in education may have good intentions, but their position sends a message that children should remain in schools that are not serving them well and that what parents desire for their children’s education cannot be accommodated.

Republicans believe improvement in education can always be accommodated. By breaking these monopolies of education that exist across the United States, we increase the opportunity for every child to be taught in a successful school. It’s time we give our children that chance.

Kevin McCarthy serves as House Majority Whip and represents California’s 23rd Congressional District.