Monday, December 11, 2006

School choice -- "Ask the customers"

Delegate Chris Saxman knows "one size does not fit all"

In 2001 Delegate Chris Saxman (R-20th House) was elected to represent Staunton, western Augusta County, Highland County, and part of Rockingham County.

An issue that was debated with his democrat opponent was school choice. As a home school educator and leader in the local support group, school choice was an issue I was particularly interested in ... and something Delegate Saxman and I discussed during his campaign. When he arrived in Richmond for the first General Assembly session in January/February 2002, he called with more details about the matter, explained the difference in "vouchers" and "tax credits," and asked my opinion. Against opposition and misunderstandings, he is still dedicated to working on this issue five years later.

Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch had a kind of "point-counterpoint" on the front of the Commentary Section (page E1) titled "The Quest for Success" with discussion between Delegate Saxman ("Listen To Customers: To Improve Failing Schools, Utilize Free-Market Principles") and State School Superintendent Billy Cannaday ("No Takeovers: Virginia Has Plan to Get Petersburg Schools on Track"). They concentrated on the Petersburg school system because it has had only one school to achieve accreditation ... showing that something clearly needs to be done.

No bureaucrat, Chris Saxman is a former teacher and is currently general manager of his family's Shenandoah Valley Water Company. He looks at government with a businessman's eye. Over the years he has gone to the customers when there was a problem to discover what change was needed, and he takes that same approach with the Petersburg schools. He does not advocate abandoning the public school system but, rather, discovering a better way to educate Virginia's children ... beginning with asking for parents' input.

Although my youngest graduated high school in June 2006 ... so school choice will no longer apply to me ... I applaud Delegate Saxman's continuing work to find a better way for parents and children who are still in the system.

Listen To Customers: To Improve Failing Schools, Utilize Free-Market Principles
By Delegate Chris Saxman
Richmond Times-Dispatch (12/10/06)

One of the things that I have learned in my time in business is that if you think there is a problem with your products or services, do one very important thing: Ask your customers what the problem is. They will let you know everything you need to change.

Recently, the Virginia Department of Education dispatched another administrator to Peters- burg to try to solve the problems of the Petersburg school system. Personally, I think the entire department ought to be relocated to Petersburg and have all its employees send their children to the public schools there. Then they might just get a handle on what the problem is and what they should to do solve it. Until then, one more bureaucrat from Richmond will serve only as a symbolic gesture that something needs to be done.

Too often in government, managers and leaders assume they know what the problem is and, therefore, know what the answer is. Since most core government services are virtual or actual monopolies, there really is no incentive to make the kinds of changes that are necessary because, after all, most customers of those services have no choice as to who is providing the services. Do you really think that cell phones and BlackBerry-type devices would be as prolific today were it not for the deregulation of AT&T (Ma Bell)? The answer is obviously no.

As a former teacher who has visited school systems not just in Virginia but also in suburban Chicago and inner-city Milwaukee, I can honestly tell you that there is no one way to educate every child. No matter how many individualized educational programs (IEPs) one has, sometimes even the best and brightest kids need a different environment in order to learn.

Citizens Want a Choice

But instead of presuming that I know best for Petersburg, I decided to ask the people of Petersburg. After all, they are the ones closest to the situation. They are, in effect, the customers. From a telephone survey, I learned that 85 percent of 1,600-plus respondents to the survey support parents being able to choose which school best educates their children. Sixty-three percent support a tuition tax-credit program to help parents afford the school of their choice. Seventy-six percent want to see at least 65 percent of money in K-12 reach the classroom.

If the Commonwealth really wanted to show that it truly cared about the children and the parents of Petersburg (the customers), it would offer them the freedom to choose which school best educates each child. Go to your local convenience or grocery store and count the number of different sodas that are available. Ask people to give up all the television channels, airline options, and automobile choices, or tell them that they have only one bank -- and imagine the response. But first imagine the quality of the product and service of each with just one choice.

Accountability Is With Parents

How can one support a quality product by inhibiting a competitive free market? Ninety-two percent of K-12 school-age children attend Virginia's public schools. Many do so because their parents are satisfied that their child is getting a quality education. Virginia has invested billions of dollars and implemented accountability in K-12 education, but ask yourself, Where does ultimate accountability truly rest? It rests with the customer.

Back in our segregationist past, some politicians fought against allowing African-American students to attend public schools. Today, some politicians will not help parents afford a school of their own choice. That's not freedom, and that's not right. Only when parents have the ability to choose which school they prefer will our educational system dramatically improve in order to compete with our foreign counterparts.

The 8 percent of the K-12-eligible students who do not attend public schools save Virginia taxpayers more than $1 billion per year, or twice what the Virginia Lottery produces -- not including construction costs. Virginia can increase pay for our hardworking public schoolteachers with vibrant free-market alternatives that save taxpayers money by accessing underutilized private-sector assets.

We cannot and should not give up on our public schools -- but there is a better way.

Chris Saxman represents the 20th District (Staunton and Highland, and parts of Augusta and Rockingham) in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is the general manager of the Shenandoah Valley Water Company, which bottles and distributes spring water.

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