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Posts Tagged ‘Vouchers’

Forget the victory over the union bosses in Wisconsin. Yes, that was important, but school choice is an ever bigger threat to the left.

Breaking the government education monopoly would reveal the inefficiency and incompetence of government, while simultaneously threatening the power of the National Education Association, which is a major source of money and power for the left.

Even more important, school choice would give poor kids a much better education, thus increasing their ability to achieve the American dream.

Helping poor people lead better lives, though, is not a priority for the left. If people are less dependent on government, they probably are less likely to reflexively support those who want to make government even bigger.

This is why it is good news that the promise of school choice in Pennsylvania (which I wrote about last year) is about to become a reality.

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent editorial page has the key details.

The most promising development is occurring in Pennsylvania, where a state-wide voucher bill supported by new Governor Tom Corbett is moving through the Republican-controlled legislature. Children in the Keystone State’s 144 worst schools—where students scored in the lowest 5% on recent state exams—would be eligible for a voucher. …in 1996, but unions blocked the idea by claiming that lack of spending was the real education problem. Time has proven that wrong again. According to the Commonwealth Foundation, a state think tank, “taxpayer spending on public schools has doubled to $26 billion per year” over the past 15 years. Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student, or “$2,000 more than the national average and more than 39 other states.” In some of the worst school districts, per pupil spending approaches $20,000. Yet scores on national tests have been flat for years, with only 40% of Pennsylvania 8th graders at or above proficiency in reading and math. Even state tests, which have lower standards, show that only about half of Pennsylvania 11th graders are proficient in reading and math.

What’s especially encouraging about the developments in Pennsylvania is that some traditionally left-wing folks have realized that it’s time to put the best interests of kids above the interests of the teacher unions. I particularly admire the role of a black state senator.

Mr. Williams, who is black, has taken some heat for his pro-voucher stance from local civil rights groups. “The NAACP nationally is opposed to this and locally is opposed to this, and they call me all sorts of funny names,” he tells us. “But the truth is that a lot of the people in the NAACP don’t acknowledge that they send their own kids to private schools. They’ve left. They’ve moved away.” Several local labor groups in Philadelphia have also broken with the teachers union and endorsed vouchers. “We believe that children from all economic backgrounds deserve a chance for a bright future,” said John Dougherty of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. “School choice programs will give them that chance.”

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School choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Rich people already have school choice, both because they have the ability to live in good school districts and they have the resources to send their kids to private schools. The children of poor people, by contrast, are warehoused in failing government schools. Here’s what Kevin Huffman recently said for the Washington Post.

In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment “choice” school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

…We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

…Consider the recent results from a test of 15-year-olds around the world. Headlines noted the embarrassing American mediocrity (31st out of 65 countries in math, with scores below the international average). Even worse, our results are profoundly segregated by race. White and Asian Americans are still in the upper echelon. But African American and Latino students lag near the bottom quartile of world standards. As we think about our game plan to “win the future,” our black and Latino students won’t be competing with China and Finland – they’re on track to scrap it out with Bulgaria and Mexico.

But school choice is only part of the answer. If parents lack a commitment to education (or are not even present in the home), then even good schools won’t translate into good students. Walter Williams explains.

The public education establishment bears part of the responsibility for this disaster, but a greater portion is borne by black students and their parents, many of whom who are alien and hostile to the education process.

…Violence, weapons-carrying, gang activity and student or teacher intimidation should not be tolerated. Students engaging in such activity should be summarily expelled.

Some might worry about the plight of expelled students. I think we should have greater concern for those students whose education is made impossible by thugs and the impossible learning environment they create.

Another part of the black education disaster has to do with the home environment. More than 70 percent of black children are born to unwedded mothers, who are often themselves born to unwedded mothers. Today’s level of female-headed households is new in black history. Until the 1950s, almost 80 percent of black children lived in two-parent households, as opposed to today’s 35 percent.

Often, these unwedded mothers have poor parenting skills and are indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to their children’s education. The resulting poorly behaving students should not be permitted to sabotage the education of students whose parents are supportive of the education process.

At the minimum, a mechanism such as tuition tax credit or educational voucher ought to be available to allow parents and children who care to opt out of failing schools. Some people take the position that we should repair not abandon failing schools. That’s a vision that differs little from one that says that no black child’s education should be improved unless we can improve the education of all black children.

…Our black ancestors, just two, three, four generations out of slavery, would not have tolerated school behavior that’s all but routine today. The fact that the behavior of many black students has become acceptable and made excuses for is no less than a gross betrayal of sacrifices our ancestors made to create today’s opportunities.

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I generally focus on fiscal policy and I love low tax rates, so when I say that what happens on school choice in Douglas County, Colorado, may be more important to the future of the nation than what happens with Obama’s plan for higher tax rates next year, that should give you an idea of the critical importance of this education battle.

The union bosses at the National Education Association have been waging a vicious national campaign against competition and choice and have succeeded in limiting school choice to a handful of small systems (largely focused just on the poor) in places such as Milwaukee.

These are great success stories, but the government education monopoly won’t be broken until there is a big, highly visible, school choice success in a large, mostly white, jurisdiction. Douglas County is that example. Here’s an excerpt from a story in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The school board in a wealthy suburban county south of Denver is considering letting parents use public funds to send their children to private schools—or take classes with private teachers—in a bid to rethink public education.

The proposals on the table in Douglas County constitute a bold step toward outsourcing a segment of public education…

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a voucher program in Cleveland that public money could be used for private religious schools as long as parents were not steered to any one particular faith-based program and had a “genuine choice” on where to use their vouchers. About 160,000 children in the U.S., mostly low-income or with special needs, use vouchers or scholarships subsidized indirectly by the state to attend private schools, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

…Douglas County School District board members are also considering letting students enrolled in public schools opt out of some classes in favor of district-approved alternatives offered at for-profit schools or by private-sector instructors. Students might skip high-school Spanish, for example, to take an advanced seminar in Chinese, or bypass physics to study with a rocket scientist, in person or online.

…The school board is dominated by conservatives, including several who won election last fall on vows to expand educational choices. “These days, you can build a custom computer. You can get a custom latte at Starbucks,” said board member Meghann Silverthorn. “Parents expect the same out of their educational system.”

…Douglas County, a swath of tidy cul-de-sacs and look-alike subdivisions, already boasts nine charter schools, two magnet schools and an online school as well as 65 traditional schools—all funded by tax dollars. Students receive high scores on standardized tests and a recent community survey found overwhelmingly positive views about the public schools. Fewer than 4,000 students in the district chose private or home schools last year, according to state statistics.

“But we will not rest on our laurels,” board president John Carson said at a recent meeting.

…The voucher plan…would give participants about $5,000, enough to cover 35% to 100% of tuition at local private schools.

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Some of my Republican friends were disappointed with last week’s election results in Colorado, but something far more important is about to happen in the Centennial State. Douglas County, which is a significant jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, appears to be on the verge of implementing a sweeping school choice system.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion.

…The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

Here’s a link to the proposal, but if you just want my summary, I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.

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When Democrat and Republican candidates for governor in a large state both endorse school vouchers, that doesn’t necessarily mean genuine educational reform will take place, but it surely is a positive sign. If a state like Pennsylvania breaks the grip of the teacher unions and ends the state school monopoly, the impact would be powerful – and nationwide. The Wall Street Journal opines about the meaning of this development and also take a much-deserved shot at Obama, who is phasing out a school choice program in Washington, DC, because he cares more about appeasing unions than helping poor kids get a good education.

Last month, and to widespread surprise, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato came out in support of school vouchers for underprivileged kids. Mr. Onorato said that education “grants”—he avoided the term vouchers—”would give low-income families in academically distressed communities direct choices about which schools their children should attend.” Mr. Onorato’s Republican opponent, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, is also a strong backer of education choice, which means that come November Pennsylvania voters will get to choose between two candidates who are on record in support of a statewide school voucher program. Mr. Onorato, the Allegheny County Executive, adopted his new position at the urging of state lawmaker Tony Williams, a voucher proponent whom he defeated in a May primary. The speculation is that Mr. Onorato, who trails Mr. Corbett in the polls, is looking to attract financial support from pro-voucher businessmen who backed Mr. Williams in the primary. Mr. Onorato could also be responding to the public education reality in Pennsylvania. On state tests last year, only 56% of 11th graders scored proficient in math, and 65% in reading. In Philadelphia, only 48% of public school students read at grade level and 52% reach the standard in math. Clearly, the status quo isn’t working. The Obama Administration, which is phasing out a popular and successful school voucher program in Washington, D.C., at the insistence of teachers unions, refuses to acknowledge that vouchers can play a role in reforming K-12 education.

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