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One of the perks of living in a democratic capitalist country is the freedom to choose -- choose our representatives, choose our religion, choose our restaurants, choose our brand of sneakers, beer and cars. And when buying products or services, we actually demand variety and selection. It would be unacceptable if we had only one restaurant in which to dine, or one kind of car to buy. In turn, competition has become one of the steadfast rules of capitalism that, over time, has created a strong economy. It has led to high-quality products and services, with enough sizes and styles to fit and suit everyone. And when someone tries to curb the competition in an industry -- and it hurts the consumer -- you can bet that the public will demand reform. Amazingly, not one word of the preceding paragraph applies to K-12 education in this country. The same rules -- competition, selection and the freedom to choose -- do not apply to public education. But they should. That was the simple yet profound point made in a speech recently delivered by financier and philanthropist Ted Forstmann at the launching of his new organization, Parents in Charge, a non-profit, bipartisan organization aimed at alerting Americans as to the real problems -- and real possibilities -- of K-12 education. Forstmann asks: Why, in a country that is both democratic and capitalist, do we have an education system that is neither? In its current state, public education in America is a monopoly. Defenders of the status quo love to point out that 90 percent of American children go to public schools. But clearly, any supplier with a 90 percent market share must be considered monopolistic. And we all know -- and have since way before the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed monopolies in 1890 -- monopolies produce a low-quality product at a high price. As consumers of higher education, we all appreciate the high quality, wide variety and specialization of our own education product. We all know that education works best when tailored to fit our personal needs. But public education is a one- size-fits-all system. People who can't afford to avoid public K-12 schools get stuck with one miserable service provider. They have no choice, no alternative and no recourse. They are forced to send their children into a failed system -- and kids wind up in failing, dangerous schools. For those stuck in public schools, freedom of choice is some far away, textbook democratic theory -- it doesn't exist for real. Ask a student in the Bronx the meaning of diversity, and he'll tell you it stands for the different brands of metal detectors that guard school doors. Probe a teacher to discover how she approaches her students, and she'll respond with a scripted class text. And question administrators about why there has been little improvement, and you'll soon figure out why a lack of competition leads to a lack of quality -- students simply have nowhere else to go, and schools consequently have a captive customer. But remember, no matter how screwed up a system gets, somebody always benefits. Defenders of the status quo rail against the idea of bringing market forces into education -- shocked at the idea that someone might make money from educating kids. But they won't readily reveal that K-12 education is a $400 billion industry. Suppliers in the current system -- textbook makers, desk producers and private security services -- are making bundles in the current setup. Teachers' unions have become among the strongest organized labor movements in this country, to the point where it is almost impossible to fire a teacher. So what's the solution? Forstmann suggests making American public education look a little more like the rest of America. We should open the system up and allow for choice and competition. After all, we should remember that government has no mandate to decide how our educational system works. Indeed, private citizens enjoyed control over the public educational system during the first 100 years of our nationhood, until government began taking over in the latter half of the 19th century. America was not founded on government control -- but on freedom. It is time that we apply free market ideals to our educational institution. If we enable a multitude of suppliers to compete for students, we can boost innovation, investment and utilization of technology. And most importantly, we just might reinvigorate the strength of our public schools. The time for reform is now. Public education finally has the national spotlight, and the efforts of leaders such as Forstmann have paved the road towards a better system. Now it is up to us, younger Americans, to follow the lead of people like Forstmann and demand smart-minded, dynamic reform.

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