“If we elect new school board members or run for the board A ourselves, we can expect improved schools.” This is our national misunderstanding.

Nothing in the traditional public school system inherently promotes excellence. Even the free election of school board members—a token nod to democracy—fails to overcome this system’s fatal flaws. As a good friend always put it, a bad system beats a good person every time.

The way to a superior educational system is through the exercise of freedom and democracy, national principles that are mocked in our form of public education. In fact, although the structural basis for public schools is elective and therefore “democratic,” the system itself is a centrally planned monopoly. We do not elect a board to decide which groceries should be available in the neighborhood, and we would not stand for an elected board to provide all the transportation in our area. So what is democratic about providing a small group of people the exclusive right to decide how and where all of the children in a given area will be educated? The system is fundamentally misguided and should be eliminated.

But a truly democratic and open system of public education is forming. Market-driven solutions to educational problems recognize that the public, as purchaser, has clear and concise requirements that must be met and for which we are willing to pay. While the state provides the funding for public education, it should neither operate schools nor place children in schools. Families must choose their own schools, with the state role confined to oversight and the distribution of information that parents can use in their selection process.

Two major movements are using market-based solutions to reform public education and to shift power away from government and central planners toward students, families, and local communities. Voucher programs offer students the chance to choose schools outside the public system, and charter schools create autonomous schools under contract to provide education. Under both programs, the school is chosen by the family, and state money provided for the child’s education is given directly to the school.

The country’s few voucher programs have been hampered by legal wrangling over whether students should be able to use them to attend religious schools. Thanks to a recent court decision in Wisconsin, voucher programs will undoubtedly be considered by the United States Supreme Court in its next term. Given a favorable result, these programs should multiply exponentially. Demand for school vouchers is high, and policies are focused mostly on children whose parents could not otherwise choose a private school. Many private philanthropic efforts have expanded the availability of these vouchers while we await a court ruling and more progressive state policies.

Charter schools have caught on nationwide. Since Minnesota established the first ones in 1991, 34 states have followed suit and adopted laws allowing charter schools. Arizona has experienced the most rapid growth in charter schools because we have allowed them to evolve. While other states tiptoe into the marketplace, we have welcomed innovation and have been blessed with board members who understand that the transformation from centrally planned to market-driven schools requires a radical departure from business as usual. But what really drives charter schools into existence is demand. In just three years of operation, Arizona has opened over 240 charter schools, many of which now have waiting lists. This demand is not a small issue: it is the issue.

Under marketplace reforms, schools only open if they can attract students. The schools are immediately responsive to the clients because they must be responsive. Direct contact with parents as consumers has generated more innovation in three years than could have been forced into the traditional system over two decades.

Before elaborating on these reforms and their effects, let us make a brief comparison between the marketplace idea, which places children at the center of this enterprise, and the current system of central planning.

Public schools are generally governed by elected boards that operate all schools within a particular geographic boundary. These districts have the power to tax on behalf of the schools they serve. Simply put, school districts represent a Soviet form of government. The money raised for the schools goes directly to the central office, where the staff makes the decisions regarding the services that each school within the district will receive. The district office does not apportion money on the basis of students or allow those running each school to make their own decisions. The district funds the needs it sees. Not surprisingly, district offices are rarely the victims of budget cuts.

Most people do not realize that school principals do not control their budgets, and they would be amazed to learn of the favoritism that attends decisions made by the district administration. While there are huge disparities in wealth between districts, there are also major inequalities in per pupil expenditure within districts because of preferences in the central office that often do not reflect preferences in the schools themselves.

The central office usurps all of the decisions a school should make in order to meet the needs of its clientele: whom to hire, whom to fire, what to pay, how to teach, how to discipline, what to build, what to buy, how to test. These decisions are made one time for every school in the district—perhaps two schools, perhaps 50. A single set of policies governs every institution, with the expectation that one set of decisions can serve all students. But nobody is that smart.

No wonder the politics of public education are so bitter. It is a zero-sum game. If the district administration supports a whole-language curriculum, it will likely employ that for all schools, and those who desire phonetic instruction lose out. This is both anti-democratic and insane. There is no one best way to run a school that will meet the needs of all children or the desires of all parents.

In contrast, market principles provide a rich choice of educational settings for the consumer, and consumer choice brings direct accountability to the system. In the case of charter schools, states with favorable laws can expect an immediate proliferation of diverse and independent schools. The original intent behind charter schools was to allow independence of operation in return for academic accountability. The school must perform on behalf of its students, or it could be closed.

One critical feature of this approach to public education is that any school desiring charter school status can apply directly to an independent board, rather than to the board responsible for all other schools in the area. Some states claim to allow for charters, but require schools to gain charter status from the board which previously ran their school. This is like having a manager from Burger King walk into McDonald’s and request to set up a small burger bar in the corner. Obviously, these requests are seldom granted, or are granted with strings sufficient to defeat the purpose of seeking independence. States that allow for independent boards (such as the state board of education or a university board) to issue charters have received —and granted—many more requests.

Another feature of a strong charter law is that the school receives the total tuition a student would have received in a traditional public school. Many states provide an incentive to school districts to create charter schools by paying the district the full amount per pupil, but requiring them to pay only part of this to the charter school. This maneuver illustrates the political strength of school governing boards, but it does little for the fledgling charter school.

Finally, a strong charter law grants schools the freedom to operate. Charter schools enter into a contract with their sponsoring board, and this contract should allow for all management decisions to be made by the school. Freedom to hire and fire staff, to operate at a profit, determine curriculum and class size, and to act on any other issue that concerns the daily running of the school should fall to the school itself The sponsor should require that the school admit all students without preference or tuition, and ensure that state academic standards are met. In addition, the sponsor should exercise some minimal but certain financial oversight.

Such laws have spawned a myriad of new options in public education. Some charter schools offer traditional classrooms with stringent discipline and parental contracts for expectation; others offer Montessori instruction, long an offering in the private sector, but rarely adopted for public schools; and several charter schools have been started by leaders in the minority community, specifically targeted at inner-city youth.

Traditional district schools have been affected by this movement. As students move away from the district, income declines, and the districts have had to respond. District schools are now running marketing campaigns in an attempt to attract parents. The district schools have adopted some of the successful strategies of the charter schools, implementing new styles of instruction such as the traditional classroom or Montessori.

The predictable tension creates both positive and negative pressures on the schools. Charter schools certainly receive a higher degree of scrutiny, as opponents and proponents both seek to validate their opinions. But it will take years to know what changes are truly having the most impact, and attempts to summarize this movement after three years of operation here in Arizona can include only trends, not conclusions.

These trends are promising. State tests indicate that charter schools are competitive and that student achievement often outpaces student performance in the traditional public school setting. Parental satisfaction is much higher, and attendance is significantly better in these schools.

In Arizona, there are no signs of a weakening of demand for charter schools, and since our student enrollment grows by approximately 25,000 pupils per year, there is plenty of room for new school growth. In fact, new partnerships are forming between home developers and charter school operators to place public charter schools in some new neighborhoods. Home developers are aware that high quality schools benefit their home price. In addition, charter schools are often more flexible than traditional schools when it comes to agreements for school cost contributed by developers, or other requirements generally sought by city councils to benefit new communities. For the first time, the local school district has a competitor for school development in new communities, and that is good news.

When marketplace principles touch a centrally planned system, expect fireworks. Those who have learned to operate in and profit from the current system will not easily let go, nor should we expect them to, but we must guard against their attempts to forestall this change. As the number of market-driven schools expands and the challenge to the old system becomes real, we expect the opposition to become more vicious and less concerned with fact.

A perfect example of this is the claim that market reforms “re-segregate” the public schools. This accusation, which comes from several colleges of education across the country, ignores both fact and reason. Anyone who understands public education knows we segregate schools by neighborhood, and where attempts are made to force integration, we shamefully segregate by expectation.

I can think of few actions more cynical than the national practice of enticing white students into largely minority’ campuses with high expectation course work such as the international baccalaureate curriculum or other rigorous offerings. A close look at many “successfully integrated” campuses reveals that, while the diversity of the student body may have increased, minority students remain in consumer math while white students receive a rich and challenging curriculum. Meanwhile, at a charter school down the street, the population is nearly all African-American, but by parent choice. The school expects students to achieve at high levels, and so they consistently outscore the traditional public schools around them.

I raise this issue as an example of why it matters that we focus on facts rather than inflammatory predictions and false claims. We must continue to speak the truth about what is happening to students in our schools, and not be cowed by those who speak in polysyllabic apology for a system unworthy of our children’s futures.

Centrally planned systems are indifferent to mediocrity. Public education falters because it is centrally planned. If we do not acknowledge this fundamental flaw, we fall prey to ridiculous excuses: not enough money invested, too many broken families, poor education colleges, leftist/rightist political influences, and so on. While these may indeed be hurdles, they are not the causes of the inferior system to which we cling.

We are moving into an educational marketplace. Those who believe that there is “still time” to reform our centrally planned educational systems ignore the fact that while there may be time, there is no reason to do so.

Nothing improves without cause; no system immune to consumer response can sustain itself; and competition creates innovation. We have already lost too many children to our national hand-wringing. It is time to move on to something new.