Mark Roberts, graying but still athletic in his crisp suit and tie, stood in the center of his circle of 15 students. Every eye was on the articulate and energetic instructor as he probed their understanding of the character in their literature assignment, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. The high school juniors bounced their thoughtful and mature-beyond-years analyses off the teacher and each other. There was not a slacker in the room; each young scholar was as bright and engaged as the next. And I thought, “I have never seen a high school class like this.”
Like most conservatives, I have always advocated school choice. In my Adam Smith / free market / supply and demand worldview, whenever consumers have a choice the right products are delivered at the right cost, guided by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. Competition drives excellence in every aspect of life. Why would education be any different?
Last week at Archbishop Carroll Catholic high school in Washington, DC I saw the proof of the theory firsthand. Without question, these kids have very bright futures and a leg up on their public-school peers. Maybe two legs, an arm, and a head.
Located in the middle of one of DC’s lowest-income neighborhoods, Archbishop Carroll has evolved over the years. The aging but well-maintained facility was originally a boy’s school, one of the first segregated schools in DC. Carroll later went co-ed, absorbed students from other Catholic schools, and in recent years has become a highly-sought educational alternative for families who want to extract their children from the grim, underperforming DC public schools. While Catholic religious training is offered at Archbishop Carroll, it is not required, and only about 20% of the students take CCD.
Tuition at Archbishop Carroll is about $13,000 per year – far below the amount taxpayers spend annually to educate students at the failing non-charter DC public schools. Many families pay the full tuition out-of-pocket. In the interest of diversity, discounts are offered to white, Asian, and Latino students (the student body is almost entirely African-American), as well as registered Catholics. Over half the students would not be able to afford to attend Archbishop Carroll without grants from the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Archbishop Carroll competes with other private and charter schools for students by offering families a rigorous, no-nonsense academic program in a safe and uplifting environment. With strong emphasis on accountability, discipline and character development, Carroll provides the education product and opportunity for future success that most parents want for their children. But the competition doesn’t end there.
On a tour of the school organized by the Franklin Center as part of their “Amplify School Choice” conference, I asked student Wanofe Mideksa if she is a “superstar”, hand-picked to entertain us. “Not really,” she explained. “All the students here are high-achievers, because we have to compete to get into Carroll.” Students are selected for admission by test scores, admission essays and interviews. Once enrolled, they have to maintain their motivation levels. Most students take public transportation, some traveling as long as an hour each way. They wear jackets and ties, and dresses. They are addressed as “Mr.” and “Miss” and decorum is maintained at all times. The school deliberately sets tuition just beyond the scholarship amount to ensure that every family has “skin in the game.”
And Archbishop Carroll competes for the best instructors. “Our teachers don’t sit down during class,” said the school president, Mary Elizabeth Blaufuss. “You won’t find them texting when they should be teaching. They are here because they want to be part of a serious academic program.”
Education is no different from any other product or service. When consumers have choices and suppliers have to offer the very best products to compete for their business, everybody wins.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side
Did you ever have to make up your mind?
You pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It’s not often easy and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind?