BIG-STATE, social-democratic Sweden seems an odd place to look
for a free-market revolution. Yet that is what is under way in the country's
schools. Reforms that came into force in 1994 allow pretty much anyone who
satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the
state's expense. The local municipality must pay the school what it would have
spent educating each child itself—a sum of SKr48,000-70,000 ($8,000-12,000) a
year, depending on the child's age and the school's location. Children must be
admitted on a first-come, first-served basis—there must be no religious
requirements or entrance exams. Nothing extra can be charged for, but making a
profit is fine.
But I did know this about U.S. schools -- and politics (from today's WSJ, "School Choice Is Change You Can Believe In"):
Barack and Michelle Obama send their children to an upscale
private school. When asked about it during last year's YouTube debate, Sen.
Obama responded that it was "the best option" for his children.
Several hundred low-income parents in our nation's capital
have also sent their children to private and parochial schools, with the help of
a federal program that provides Opportunity Scholarships. Like Mr. and Mrs.
Obama, most of these parents are African-American. And like Mr. and Mrs. Obama,
they too believe the schools they've chosen represent the "best option" for
Now these parents have a question for Mr. Obama. Is Mr.
Change-You-Can-Believe-In going to let his fellow Democrats take away the one
change that is working for them?
Just a few days ago, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.'s
congressional delegate) told the Washington Post that "the Democratic Congress
is not about to extend this program." Today that program will come under the
congressional spotlight, when a House subcommittee takes up the annual
appropriations bill for the District of Columbia that includes funding for
Opportunity Scholarships for the 2009-10 school year. If Mrs. Norton and her
allies in the teachers unions have their way, hundreds of African-American
children with these scholarships will be forced back into one of the most
miserable public school systems in the United States.
Just how rotten are the D.C. public schools? In a recent
survey by Education Week, the D.C. public schools ranked fourth from the bottom
in terms of graduation rates. Test scores for basics like math and reading are
also near the bottom. It's not for lack of money: A recent U.S. Census Bureau
report says the district school spending clocks in at more than $13,400 per
child -- third highest in the nation. It takes a lot of money to run a school
system as lousy as D.C.'s.
This dismal performance helps explain why so many have been
willing to cross the usual political and ideological lines to try to give the
district's kids a better shot at a decent education. Opportunity Scholarships
have been endorsed by both the Washington Post and Washington Times. They have
the support of the Republican president as well as the current and past
Democratic mayors -- Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams.
Even some of Mr. Obama's Democratic colleagues -- e.g.,
California's Dianne Feinstein -- have said that D.C. should be allowed to give
the program a chance. In contrast, Mr. Obama's silence is thundering across the
This silence is all the more striking, given that the Ivy
League-educated Democrat puts education reform at the top of his agenda. He has
decried the "achievement gap" that is leaving African-American children behind.
He has also noted -- rightly -- that America's system of public education is
producing hundreds of thousands of children who will be condemned to the margins
of American prosperity because they do not have the tools they need to
Why do so many politicians condemn the poorest to the worst schools? There is good reason to believe that it is for political support from the education establishment -- to whom they promise ever more money, turning a blind eye to evidence that it is of no help.
How do these people sleep at night?