School choice up to parents

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

As much as I respect the points Mr. David Rosman makes in his Jan. 15 opinion editorial, "A properly supported public education is the future of this nation," this scathing piece criticizing Columbia Public Schools board member Ines Segert's decision to enroll her son in the private Columbia Independent School, and further rants about ultra-orthodox religionists, is based on some misconceptions itself, and is generally not the tone we need in the public discussion on education or any other topic.

Rather than get mired in the muck of surface topics, I encourage us to first zoom out to the greater issue at hand and consider the words of our political "rule book," aka the Constitution.


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Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Constitution makes no provision, nor establishes a right, for public education. It is simply not mentioned. Therefore, it is my impression that the 10th Amendment kicks in, which states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." So, is the U.S. Department of Education, etc., actually unconstitutional? Nonetheless, with public education being delegated to the states, I find that the Missouri Constitution, Article IX, Section 1(a) tells us "the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools." 

I am glad Missouri provides for this, and that we have a good local public school district, of which I myself am a graduate (Hickman '93). I agree that we absolutely cannot underfund them nor forsake them, as to slouch toward Dickens-era slums. But let's face it: by definition, for good or bad, public education exists as a subsidized monopoly that we are forced to patronize. Now, whether it's Microsoft, old Ma Bell, or the DMV, monopolies typically at least find it difficult staying on the cutting edge of value and innovation. 

How do we determine what is proper funding to ensure educational excellence?  Last I heard, CPS's estimated annual per pupil cost for 2008 is $10,252, which I heard is up from only about $7,000 each year just a few years ago. Dr. Segert cites the recent increase is due to: supplemental staff, required by federal and state guidelines, extensive transportation costs, etc.As CPS Interim  Superintendent Jim Ritter recently told me, CPS is committed to "educating all the children of all the people," some of whom need special education, ESL, Douglass High School, etc. Both perspectives sound reasonable, but I don't know how to determine what funding would ever be deemed enough.  

I find that at Columbia Independent School , where Ines Segert "dared" to enroll her son, annual per pupil tuition ranges from $9,560 for grades K-5 to $11,875 forgrades 6-12; though scholarships are apparently available, and CIS has an endowment fund to work from. So with similar annual per-student costs to public schools, how to compare the quality of student achievement when private schools don't use the same standardized tests? Anecdotally, I hear a general respect in the community for the quality of education at CIS; more clear is that parents of students, including Dr. Segert, obviously think it is worth 10 grand a year from out of pocket for their youngster(s), for whatever reasons they may determine.  

Public, private or parochial schools can potentially provide equally excellent outcomes, as can home schooling, apprenticeships, or other forms, as parents might determine fit their children's needs. I am glad parents have choices, so I don't understand how this has to be framed as an antagonistic contest.

Therefore, why is the personal choice Dr. Segert has made for her child so offensive, even as she is still committed to public education with her capacity on the CPS board? I myself have met Dr. Segert before, and contrary to what one might imagine from Mr. Rosman's depiction, she doesn't have demonic horns coming out of her head or anything. In fact, my impression of her is of a parent who took the initiative to ask questions about how the school was teaching her child, and eventually lead her to come up from the grass roots to be elected to the school board. Her actions thus far on the board have garnered various feedback, but I get the impression she does continue to ask questions about topics that many would rather not talk about.

I share Mr. Rosman's concern that conservative members of some faith communities are engaging in political aggression to alter education policy. But so are many people who are in favor of a more secular social democracy, as are numerous other interested parties. We are all concerned about our children's education, and rightly so. However, the escalation of education structures over time from the parent-child relationship (as societies have informally conducted for millennia) to local learning cooperatives, to state education departments, to the federal bureaucracy, has raised the stakes to where whomever holds national office does indeed acquire increasingly more power to influence the minds of the next generation. 

No matter your political persuasion here are some points to ponder: Were you glad Bush had the reigns of the U.S. Department of Education for 8 long years (abstinence-only sex-ed, "No Child Left Behind," etc.)? Will Obama be more fair (to your ideology, but at the expense of another's)? What if this trend of ever-extreme ideological pendulum swings brings another even bolder neo-conservative (or "liberal") to the Presidency in future years?  There is legitimate risk of centralized control over local education, a path "No Child Left Behind" has perhaps helped pave. What if public schools are eventually federally consolidated in essence, and other choices regulated away, under the guise of "quality control" – in order to essentially protect us from ourselves? Well, at least we'd be free from the concerns of having a local school board to complain about.

I think diversity and personal choice are good things, including in the realm of education choices.

Steve Spellman hosts the KOPN/89.5 News at 5 on Tuesday nights from 5 to 6 p.m.


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Derrick Fogle January 28, 2009 | 1:06 p.m.

I would like to point out that Missouri law is very clear about a parent's educational choices, and the parent holds almost all the power. A parent can choose ANY mix of public, private, home, or alternative schooling for their child on a class-by-class, subject-by-subject basis. This is exactly what I did about the district's horrible math curriculum: I pulled my child out of CPS and home schooled just for that one class / subject. I wasn't the only one. It took years for CPS officials to acknowledge the problem, but they are finally working on changing the math curriculum.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 28, 2009 | 1:49 p.m.

The rich have always known that most "private" schools are far superior to "government" schools.
Bureaucrats have much to learn from the private sector.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracy hampers their effectiveness.
With today's "information highway" and educational options available to children and parents, I see no need for government run schools, until perhaps High School/College Prep/Vocational School.
Public School has become nothing more than glorified baby sitting, a waste of taxpayer money and political pandering.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand January 28, 2009 | 3:09 p.m.

"The rich have always known that most 'private' schools are far superior to 'government' schools."

The latest example: the Obamas.

(Report Comment)

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