By Robert Enlow, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert Enlow is President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose.
(CNN) Twenty five years ago, President Reagan gave a speech in West Berlin where he exhorted Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Two years later, the barbed wire and wall that was a symbol of oppression came crashing down, ending decades of tyranny and leading to one of the greatest expansions of freedom and liberty in the 20th Century.
America has its own Berlin Wall. It is called K-12 education.
As schools let out for summer vacation, far too many parents, particularly low-income parents, are trapped behind the wall of their zip code or family income. They have no real freedom to send their child to a school that works best for them, and far too often they are forced to attend woefully underperforming schools or schools that just don’t meet their child’s individual learning needs.
This cannot go on.
Instead, we must tear down the Berlin Wall that holds back parents from being able to pick the school that best fits their child’s unique learning style.
Thankfully, in the last two years, education reform and school choice have become front and center in America. As Mitt Romney said last week, we must put an end to the millions of children in our nation who receive a “third world education.” And President Obama said, “Michelle and I are here only because we were given a chance at an education. I will not settle for an America where some kids don’t have that chance.”
The first step in tearing down the educational Berlin Wall is to give parents - particularly low-income parents and parents of special needs students - more freedom of choice.
Programs such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are lifesavers for thousands of children and are steps in the right direction. However, all kids should have access to quality educational options and no child should be excluded for arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with an individual child’s needs.
Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist and father of the school choice concept, believed that to dramatically improve public education, you must give all parents the freedom to choose. The greater the potential for schools to lose customers, the more likely you will see schools improve.
Just like the millions of East Germans who demanded freedom, we know that there are millions of parents that want to be removed from a system that uses a zip code to determine where their children must attend school. They want more school choice.
Earlier this month, The Friedman Foundation released a poll by Braun Research, Inc. that showed 71 percent of Moms with school-aged children support school vouchers for all students; only 30 percent of these Moms believed vouchers should be allocated based on financial need or disability.
We often hear from Moms that their children have unique circumstances that may require more individualized attention that can only be found in a private school. Moms seeking school choice sometimes want other options because their children may be in an unsafe environment. Or they may believe their public school may not share their cultural, social or spiritual values. Or, more likely, they may feel that the traditional public school just doesn’t perform well enough to address their child’s learning needs and thus, will negatively impact their child’s future academic success.
They are telling the education monopoly they want options. They do not want to be held behind the Berlin Wall of their zip code and told where their child must be sent to school. Moms and all voters are starting to tell educators they want options so children aren’t destined to one track in life.
As Romney pointed out, a “third world education” is not uncommon in our nation. And when children receive such an education, they are more likely to be unemployed, on government assistance or in jail or in prison when they become adults.
Vouchers not only provide freedom, they offer the political, moral, ethical and economical high ground.
We say Moms know best. Vouchers should be made available to children no matter if they are poor, disabled, from the middle class or from a family of 10, or from a rural, suburban or urban area.
There should be no restrictions on who gets to choose, just like there were no restrictions on who could escape tyranny once the Berlin Wall fell.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Enlow.