Dallas's Highland Park High School Vivifies the Limits of Vouchers
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Dallas's Highland Park High School Vivifies the Limits of Vouchers
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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“Decent housing is an effect of middle class values, not a cause.” – George Gilder, Wealth & Poverty, p. 93

“I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me.” Those are the words of Los Angeles Lakers’ Hall of Famer Magic Johnson about Larry Bird. Underlying Johnson’s disdain for Bird was endless respect for his abilities, and no doubt Bird felt the same way about Johnson.

Though they despised each other, Bird and Johnson needed one another. We all need competition. We need a reason to get up and work on the days we don’t want to. Competition lifts all boats.

This truth has many members of the Right calling for education reform that would increase competition among schools. Since your "assigned" public school is most often a consequence of your zip code, or the street you live on, the general view among the Right-leaning is that schools suffer in quality due to the lack of competition that the latter implies. If kids were instead made “free agents” whereby they could choose their school with a “voucher,” and perhaps more importantly if schools had to compete for students with vouchers in hand, they would vastly improve.  

On its face such a view is hard to argue with. No individual or business is worse for having competed, which means schools wouldn’t be made worse either. But as is so often the case, the policy passionate overstate things. To believe voucher proponents, the publicly educated are often victims of lousy institutions that are bad because they’re public. Supposedly this reveals itself through graduates possessing substandard mathematical and grammar skills. This doesn’t ring true.

If “public” were the root of the problem with schools, their failings wouldn’t just show up in the classroom. They would similarly be weak in athletic pursuits like football that increasingly require players to learn playbooks the size of phone books. The main thing is that what fails academically due to a lack of competition would similarly fail on the fields of play that are a marketplace of a different kind. Except that public schools around the country are routinely competitive in the sports marketplace. Why can public schools prosper athletically, but not academically? The critics don’t say.

Of greater importance, and as most reading this would admit (including voucher proponents), there are all sorts of very good to excellent public high schools around the U.S. Highland Park High School in Dallas, TX is one of those superb public schools.

Interesting about Highland Park (HP) is that it’s not just the academics that elevate it. What critics would refer to as a “government school” also thrives athletically. As the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton wrote in a piece last week, “Highland Park High School is on an uncanny run of producing championship athletes.” In this calendar year alum Scottie Scheffler won golf’s Masters, Matthew Stafford quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl Victory, not to mention that Stafford played football and baseball at HP with Los Angeles Dodger and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw.

In putting together his story, Beaton spoke to a number of their teachers, including English teacher Michael Neil. Apparently Scheffler “was meticulous,” Kershaw “was so intense that he debated Neil over the merits of annotating books,” and Stafford’s presentations were so good that for one of them the school’s principal showed up just to watch.

Did the school “make” these remarkable athletes who also shined in the classroom? And if so, how could HP be such an effective educational institution despite it being a “government school” shielded from market competition? The questions seem flippant, and maybe they are, but not for the reasons some may assume. The questions aren’t being asked as a way of questioning the need for vouchers as much as they’re a way of telling proponents to curb their enthusiasm about what will result.

The view here is that Kershaw, Scheffler and Stafford weren’t molded by Highland Park as much as they arrived at the school with remarkable work ethic, and broad values conducive to success. Highland Park didn’t make them Hall of Fame-style athletes and top students any more than a bad school could have wrecked them. Good habits and discipline drive achievement, not what we learn in the classroom. 

To which some readers are doubtless screaming at the computer screen that Highland Park is a rich kids’ school, thus explaining the school's prestige and the students who attend. It is a rich kids’ school, and Beaton acknowledges that Highland Park is “in a wealthy area with no shortage of resources.” Ok, but conservatives have long made a case that money is not what makes schools great; that competition does. Does money matter? The guess here is it does, but not because of resources. It matters most likely because people of means frequently got that way via work ethic and values conducive to success. Should we be surprised if some or a lot of their offspring exhibit many of those same traits?

After which, it should be pointed out that Kershaw was not rich. His parents were divorced, and his mother went heavily into debt to rent in the HP school district. When Kershaw was drafted out of high school in the first round of the MLB draft, the first thing he did was pay the debts his mother ran up so that he could attend HP.

All of which speaks to what really makes schools great. Values. Kershaw plainly had and has them in spades. Same with Scheffler and Stafford. This isn’t written to discredit vouchers, but it is written to cool the excitement of voucher proponents. Too many are creating victims where there aren’t, all the while ignoring the choices that lead to success and that can’t be taught.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His most recent book is When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason. 

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