News & Politics

When "Back To School" Means "Tough Luck, Kid"

The president wants "No Child Left Behind." But his patchwork plan to transfer kids to better schools would not be better than a single-payer education system.
Back to school. For many kids, those words evoke a time for new teachers, new supplies, new clothes, new possibilities. But for millions of others, the phrase signals little more than the start of another miserable year stuck in a miserable failing school.

Last January, amid great fanfare, the president signed into law the grandiloquently named No Child Left Behind Act -- a highlight of which is a provision allowing poor kids attending failing urban public schools to transfer to better schools in the same district. Sounds promising, right?

The trouble is, there isn't any room at these better schools. In Los Angeles, for instance, 230,000 children languishing in substandard schools are eligible to move to a better school; but there are only 100 -- yes, 100 -- open spots at these high-quality schools. The numbers are equally bleak across the country.

And despite this summer's favorable Supreme Court ruling, school vouchers remain a scholastic Schindler's List -- rescuing children one at a time while an entire generation of abandoned kids withers on the vine.

For serious educational reform, we need to finally move beyond patchwork solutions. Unfortunately, in our current political climate, it's nearly impossible to get people to stop protecting their little parcels of partisan turf and start thinking outside the box. To consider the possibilities. To look past their own political backyards at what might lie on the other side of the mountain.

On this side of the mountain -- where only 17 percent of high school students are proficient in math, and 50 percent of those in prison are functionally illiterate -- the idea that public education can only be provided by government-run schools is defended with the same ferocity as was the belief that the sun revolved around the Earth, until Galileo looked through his telescope.

Ironically, many of those who would have you burned at the stake for the heresy of suggesting a radical overhaul of our education system are at the forefront of promoting a radical overhaul of our health-care system -- namely, the shift to a single-payer model. It's sensible, they say. Simple. It makes quality, affordable health care available for every American and not just the privileged few.

So, what if we took a page from the health-care reformers' book and had a single-payer education system?

In a single-payer health-care plan, the federal government would provide coverage for all U.S. citizens and legal residents. But no sane person has suggested that the government should also provide the health-care services. Single-pay advocates don't want us to go to a government doctor -- they just want the government to pay the bill.

And that's how it would work with education. In a single-payer education plan, the federal government, in conjunction with the states, would provide an education allotment for every parent of a K-12 child -- whether that parent is a U.S. citizen, a legal resident or even an illegal one. Parents would then be free to enroll their child in the school of their choice.

In a single-payer health-care plan, all citizens would have access to primary care, hospitalization and prescription drugs -- and would be free to select the physician and hospital of their choice.

And, unlike in our education system, no one backing single-payer health care ever suggested that patients can only see a doctor in their own district or can only be operated on at the hospital down the street. If we don't hold people's health hostage to the health of their property values, why do we do it with their children's education?

The single-payer health plan would be financed by a payroll tax. In education, the annual cost per child -- equalized for urban and suburban school districts across each state -- would come from the current education funding sources.

When it comes to quality control, in health care the guidelines incorporated by Medicare would be used to manage the quality of health-care services. In education, the government would be responsible for accrediting the schools among which parents could choose.

It's simple, sensible and, above all, just. And maybe instead of calling for an exorcist any time the words "competition," "choice" or "freedom" are used in connection to education, we can start singing hosannas for an idea that preserves what is truly public in public education -- the government, i.e. the public, paying for it -- while allowing creativity, innovation and parental empowerment to flourish.