Zip Code Should Not Determine Destiny

Increasing Opportunity for Low-Income Students
A child’s zip code should not determine their destiny. For more than two centuries, America has been the greatest nation in history because of the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. Indeed, Americans are the most free to realize their full potential through their own “pursuit of happiness.”The up-by-the-bootstraps story is fundamental to the American identity. Regardless of what you think of President Obama’s politics, his presidency is a living testament to upward mobility in America. The son of a Kenyan immigrant and a Kansas farm-girl, there aren’t many places in the world where a man with that background could become president. The same can be said of House Speaker John Boehner, who was born to a family of modest means. These stories are, of course, not limited to elected officials. Consider Missouri’s own Sam Walton, or Jack Dorsey of St. Louis, founder of Twitter, among other countless examples.Over the last 40 years, however, the American dream has been slipping away in some zip codes. A recent Harvard study found that children born in poverty in Kansas City and St. Louis are approximately 50 percent less likely to eventually earn a middle to upper-class income than their same aged peers born in poverty in mid-Missouri.Liberals see stats like these and oft ask how government can ensure an “equality of stuff.” The left’s solution is generally geared towards centralized power and a redistribution of wealth from cradle-to-grave to make society more equal. What the progressive often believes works best is more rules, more organization, and more government money.

Conservatives understand that inequality alone is not a bad thing. (In fact, recent history has shown that equality increases during a recession.) Economic activity is not a zero-sum game and “equality of stuff” is neither just nor possible. The world learned that lesson in the Cold War. The Soviet Union was perhaps the most unequal society in history – the vast majority of the population lived in poverty, while the politically powerful enjoyed the fruits of their connections. We know how the Cold War ended. To paraphrase Reagan, “We won. They lost.”

Conservatives, by contrast, ask how government can better ensure “equality of opportunity.” The best way to ensure equal opportunity is for government to create and enforce a basic framework of rules that empower citizens to reach their potential. And while increased inequality is not necessarily a bad thing if the entire economy is improving, social mobility matters.

The conflicting philosophies of conservatives and liberals is clear in the contrasting approaches to the challenge of education in high poverty neighborhoods. Liberals tend to focus on increased funding and more centralized control. Sometimes their logic seems more focused on buildings and protecting existing power structures than helping real-life children.

House Bill 1579, which I have sponsored, takes a more comprehensive and conservative approach to improving education in high-poverty struggling school districts. It does so by empowering families in these communities to choose the school which will work best for them – as they see it, not as someone else does. The bill would:

  1. Encourage the rapid expansion of high-performing charter schools;
  2. Create scholarships for students in low-income families to attend the same schools as students from wealthy families, on the condition that the school they choose abides by the same requirements as traditional public schools and agrees not to compel any scholarship recipient to attend a religious class or ceremony;
  3. Protect the freedom these families have under current law to choose a different traditional public school, but allows “receiving schools” to place reasonable restrictions on transfers to ensure there is enough classroom space to help; and
  4. Allow students to choose courses in virtual education as an alternative to brick-and-mortar schools.
Beyond protecting and increasing these families’ freedom to choose their own path, HB 1579 would help improve struggling schools by creating a fund to pay bonuses to high-performing teachers and a more equitable transfer funding formula to prevent potential bankruptcies.I anticipate that discussions on big education legislation this year will take a long and winding path. My focus will be on increasing opportunities for families in struggling districts to pursue their own happiness, and not be held back by the arbitrary silo of an unfortunate zip-code, and I’ll do my best to ensure that the principles and policies included in HB 1579 are included in any legislation that makes it to the finish line.