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Tom Needles, White Hat lobbyist, addresses school-choice critics

By Doug Oplinger Published: February 17, 2014

From the Beacon Journal archives

Tom Needles, who was former Gov. George Voinovich’s point person on school choice in the 1990s, later became lobbyist for Akron businessman David Brennan’s White Hat Management.

Needles contributed this commentary, published in the Beacon Journal Jan. 16, 2008, on the debate over the efficacy of school choice in Ohio.


School Choice Success 

On Dec. 16, the Akron Beacon Journal published an article headlined ''Charter school challenge'' that quoted opponents of school choice as contending that because there has been marginal improvement in urban public schools, the rationale for charter schools and voucher programs no longer exists.

    The article also quoted one of Ohio's big education union bosses as saying that the only reason charter schools were created in the first place was to ''drive the public schools out of business'' in Ohio's big cities.

    As the person who served as then-Gov. George Voinovich's education adviser at the time the state's charter and voucher laws were drafted, passed and implemented during the 1990s, I am well aware of the state's intent in offering school choice legislation. And I can tell you that both of those premises are sadly mistaken.

    The governor and the General Assembly understood that there were tens of thousands of Ohio children who had no other option than to attend failing schools.

    We believed it was grossly unfair and undemocratic that so many poor families were confined to schools that were not only failing them and their families, but the rest of society as well by virtually guaranteeing unemployment, drug use and crime.

    Critics of school choice either don't understand or are too caught up in their tired arguments to see that at its most fundamental level, school choice became a moral issue. We understood that to be poor without educational choice was itself a greater poverty. We understood that Ohio's children and families deserved better than to be forced into an educational system that could only be characterized as a monopoly.

    We understood the simple concept that competition within any industry, including education, is absolutely necessary to guarantee results.

    I wish leaders of Ohio's monopoly urban districts would stop blaming kids and their families, rather than themselves, for failure. How much longer do we have to hear such things as, ''These kids can't learn,'' or, ''These kids' parents won't become involved''?

    Time and again, the critics have proved themselves wrong.

    Kids in charter schools do learn, and their parents are indeed involved, which is why their children are enrolled in charter and voucher schools in the first place.

    The bottom line is that 86,000 Ohio schoolchildren are exercising choice by attending charter schools or taking school vouchers. The large majority of these children are in our urban centers.

    Charter schools are making consistent academic gains, and authoritative polling shows that parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with their new schools.

    Hope is once again present in Ohio's large urban centers.

    Here's an idea for all those public school leaders who continue to fight so hard to preserve one of the last monopolies left in America: Join with us to compete so that all of Ohio's schools, both public and private, continue to improve.

    Choice has finally come to urban education.

    Stop trying to turn back the clock and thereby remove the hope and the promise of giving Ohio's children and their families a better life.

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