09.30.2009 0

“Choice for All” – More Than Rhetoric

  • On: 10/22/2009 10:07:41
  • In: School Choice
  • By Howard Rich

    Earlier this week, U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle attended parent-teacher conferences at Sidwell Friends School, the private academy in Washington D.C. that they chose for their two daughters to attend.

    According to the school’s website, Sidwell Friends seeks “academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds,” providing them with a “rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders.”

    Impressive, isn’t it? No wonder Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton (and Vice President Al Gore) also made the choice to enroll their children at Sidwell.

    You won’t ever hear me begrudge individual parents for making a choice that’s in the best interests of their children. I support choice for all parents, without exception, and so criticizing parents for availing themselves of the choices at their disposal wouldn’t make sense.

    My objective is simply to expand the universe of parents who have a legitimate choice to make.

    In the meantime, it’s perfectly appropriate (and understandable) that the Obamas – and nearly 40% of the U.S. Congress – have decided that the Washington D.C. public school system isn’t the best fit for their children, and have chosen another option.

    And why wouldn’t they?

    In addition to being one of the nation’s worst-performing public systems academically, D.C. public schools are also among the most dangerous in the country.

    While there is nothing wrong with choosing to avoid such a system (most parents would), Obama and members of Congress are currently trying to shut down a D.C. academic scholarship program that is providing a similar “way out” for 1,700 low-income Washington students.

    So much for “hope and change,” right?

    Of course, the grave danger the D.C. scholarship program is currently facing is a direct result of its narrow scope – and correspondingly narrow constituency.

    Not only is choice in Washington limited to low-income students, but less than half of those who apply are accepted – with priority given to students in the worst-performing schools. Currently, the program is providing scholarships to just 1,700 students – hardly the sort of number you can build a dynamic constituency around (although to their credit D.C. scholarship parents are fighting hard to save the program for future students, even after Obama attempted to placate them by permitting currently-enrolled students continue receiving scholarships).

    Still, there simply aren’t enough choices out there to create a real constituency – which is the very idea behind limited, means-tested choice programs. In fact, the assault on the D.C. scholarship program is a blueprint for shutting down choice programs before they are permitted to grow and flourish.

    Here’s the bureaucratic game plan:

    Step one – Create a choice program that ensures only a limited number of parents will be eligible to make a choice for their child.

    Step two – Within that small universe of eligible parents, ensure that the government has total control over which students are selected.

    Step three – Have the government conduct a preliminary assessment of the program in its infancy (i.e. a “snap shot in its start-up phase”) before tangible results are demonstrable.

    Nationally it’s the same sad story, with only 61,700 American students receiving scholarships. This is due to the fact that real parental choice simply isn’t available in most states – and in those few instances where it is available, it remains confined to limited, means-tested programs. Meanwhile, millions of students across the country remain trapped in failing schools, while millions more are stuck in academic settings that for whatever reason aren’t meeting their needs.

    What’s the result of this “one size fits all” monopoly? It’s simple – America continues to fall further behind the rest of the world academically at a time when we can least afford to lose our competitive edge.

    We can – and must – do better. But the only way to build real momentum – and real constituencies – on behalf of parental choice is to insist that scholarship programs be made available to all parents.

    “Choice for all” is indeed a catchy phrase, but it’s also an indispensable component in building the programs needed to turn this nation around academically.

    The author is chairman of the Parents in Charge Foundation and Americans for Limited Government.

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