What Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Can Teach About School Choice

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March 23, 2012

By Napp Nazworth

In ABC's “Food Revolution,” celebrity chef Jamie Oliver brought awareness to the problems associated with malnutrition in America's school lunches. The biggest obstacles Oliver encountered, though, came from government regulations rather than parents, faculty or students. The show illustrated that students can best be served by empowering parents and local schools to meet their educational needs.

The first meal Oliver prepared was roast chicken, brown rice, salad and yogurt with fresh fruit. However, this menu did not meet government standards; it did not include bread. The school lunch, on the other hand, was government approved because pizza crust counted as bread.  In another episode, Oliver served veggie pasta, chicken, bread and fruit. Yet, he was told that the meal did not meet federal guidelines because it did not contain enough vegetables. To meet the guidelines, the school principal added french fries to the meal.

Even as the Department of Agriculture considers changes to its school lunch guidelines, spurred by the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, our government continues to struggle with how to codify a healthy diet. And these regulations continue to be influenced by powerful lobbyists. A diet rich in vegetables provides plenty of calcium, but milk must be provided at every meal to satisfy the milk producers. Flavored milk is allowed, but to satisfy the lower calorie requirements, only non-fat milk can come flavored, adding unnecessary sugar. Oliver's experiences illustrate that merely tweaking these regulations will not improve school nutrition. Indeed, the inflexibility of government regulations is part of the problem.

Over the last several decades, the American education system has become increasingly centralized at the local, state and national levels. As the educational performance of our students has declined, the reaction has been to create more regulations and more bureaucracies. Yet, adding more layers of bureaucracy and regulation has not improved outcomes. The problems within the American education system extend far beyond the idiosyncrasies and unintended consequences of federally-mandated nutrition guidelines. It is time to consider the opposite approach.

Imagine if we streamlined those regulations and sent the money saved directly to the schools instead? All students would receive a voucher that they could redeem at whichever school, public or private, their parents choose. We could decentralize decision-making, bring greater accountability to schools and infuse greater funding directly into schools.  This model of education funding—sometimes called the “Backpack” or “Weighted Student Funding Model”—has been piloted in several school districts around the country including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and has been proposed by Governor Jerry Brown in his FY2013 budget for the state of California. While most of these districts have not expanded the funding model to include vouchers for private or parochial schools, they represent a step in the right direction by allowing education funding to follow the students.  Such a model has the potential to address the gross inequities present in many school systems across the country and can give educators and administrators freedom to innovate and respond to the particular needs of their students.

A decentralized school choice system would bring together three key principles: sphere sovereignty, principled pluralism and subsidiarity. Vouchers would empower parents, rather than the state, to choose what they deem best for their children (sphere sovereignty).  As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Education states, “Parents bear primary responsibility for the nurture and education of their children.”  None of the educational options available to parents—public or private, religious or secular—would be favored over others by the state (principled pluralism).  And the closest institution to each student would be given the greatest authority to determine what is best for the student (subsidiarity).  As the Center’s Guideline also states, “At present, government fails to do justice when it does not fund equally all of the schooling options it legally certifies. Instead it discriminates against many American families and schools by not funding the education of children who attend non-government schools, including religious schools. This stands in contrast to public funding of school choice in most other democracies in the world.”

Let school funding follow the student, and let the bulk of that funding be spent at the level of the local school. Parents, educators and communities would be empowered to improve their schools without interference from bureaucrats telling them, for instance, what is and is not a healthy meal.

—Napp Nazworth is a reporter for the Christian Post and has two blogs, Learning About Politics and Thinking Evangelical

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.