How to Reform Education in Ohio: A Symposium

J. Kenneth Blackwell

December 1, 1997

On September 25, 1957, 1,000 U.S. soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets escorted nine African-American high school students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.

Forty years later to the day, President Clinton honored the “Arkansas nine” by holding open the school door as they passed through. But a stronger, more lasting tribute would be if the President and other lawmakers faced with education reform issues in 1997 held school doors open for all children exercising their right to a quality education.

Of the experience in Little Rock, one of the nine, Melba Patillo Beals, said, “Does anybody really think we wanted to go to Central High School because we wanted to sit next to white people? We wanted to go to Central High School because they were getting Rhodes Scholarships there. We wanted equal access to opportunities.”

Parents today want the same thing for their children: equal access to quality education.

Poll after poll shows increasing support for school choice from parents. As the primary consumers of education, parents should have a strong voice in the creation of a new education system. They don’t.

Instead, parents who must raise their children in failing districts are held hostage. The public school monopoly dictates, through geographical boundaries, who will attend what school. Tax dollars are swallowed by unaccountable bureaucracies more concerned with administrative requirements than with children.

The solution is straightforward: child centered education systems that allow parents to choose schools. Such “choice systems” empower parents to choose the best educational opportunity for their children — in a public, private, home or charter school environment.

Child-centered education, while straightforward, is not simple. To adopt a system of choice for the entire state of Ohio we must dispel some myths.

Myth: Choice systems benefit only private and parochial schools. This notion is unfair to Ohio’s many outstanding public schools. There is no reason to doubt their ability to adapt and compete. Choice systems introduce competition. As participants in a free market system, we all know competition benefits consumers: in this case, parents and students.

Myth: a child-centered education system is a “radical change.” We already see the choice concept at work in higher education. In Ohio, we have a network of outstanding private and public universities and colleges. All compete for students. Many students who could afford to go to a private institution choose to go public. Why? Because quality curriculums and outstanding teaching exist at Ohio’s public institutions.

I am currently working with grassroots groups to advocate a total school choice system for Ohio.

Such a system provides school choice to all parents. It also allows education to be funded directly through children — not through a bureaucratic network. Once a per-student expenditure amount is established, that money would be used at parents’ discretion. Schools would rely on attracting parents and students for funding. They would not receive state funding any other way.

In Ohio, we have a head start to establish school choice throughout the state. The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program was an enormous hit with participating parents in its first year. Harvard University conducted a study on the program. Not only were parents happy with this school voucher program, but students’ year-end academic scores were significantly higher than in previous non-choice years.

A child-centered system of education differs from a voucher program because total school choice means every child would participate and attend any school that participates.

Forty years ago, the struggle for quality education for all people met heated resistance. In many areas it was considered “radical” to desegregate schools. Many obstacles were overcome in order to allow all students’ entrance to public schools.

Forty years ago, the courage of nine children helped crack open the door of educational opportunity in America. Today, the door is closing on children who happen to live in a low tax-base area, or in a failing district. The good thing is that our lawmakers have an opportunity to push it wide open — without rifles and fixed bayonets. The Ohio General Assembly should debate the merits of total school choice — of child-centered education — and be on the forefront of a crucial civil rights issue in the 21st century.

J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, is the Treasurer of the State of Ohio.