School Choice Knows No Color Lines
In the shadow of an old, prestigious, white-columned building, filled mostly with old, prestigious, white-collar politicians, stand thousands of black and Hispanic children who can only dream about growing up to pursue similar endeavors. These kids, our kids, are forced into some of the worst schools in the nation--where only 10 percent of students are proficient in reading and math and the idea of going to college is a joke.
Or it was. The preceding scenario describes Washington, DC just over a year ago, when the city was on the verge of dramatic education reform that (sans more state meddling) will forever change the climate of learning in the nation’s capital.
The 2004-2005 school year saw the first disbursements of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships. For the first time ever, many families inside the Beltway had the chance to direct some of their own tax dollars by sending a student to a school of choice. The District’s mayor, Anthony Williams, realized that after years of toil, several failed superintendents, and millions of dollars and rhetoric, the best opportunity for minority children to receive a quality education lay outside the halls of D.C. public schools.
Private schools answered the call and showed that fundamental skills like math and science know no color barriers. These independent and religious schools are truly examples of non-discrimination as they (unlike the District’s conventional public schools) refuse to use race or income as an excuse for low achievement. Of course, the icing on the cake is that each Opportunity Scholarship is $3,000 less than the per-pupil expenditure in the public schools, an important fact that rarely makes the headlines.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is just one example of how infusing sound market practices into the public education monopoly benefits kids. Nationally, more than 60,000 students receive similar scholarships to attend the elementary, middle, or high school of their parents’ choice.
There are many, however, who would choke the life out of this all-important movement. Like everything else in D.C., the battle over education policy has become partisan. Many have lined up in support of school choice (in the form of vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools) ... and just as many have voiced support for the status quo.
Defenders of the conventional public school system, with its rigid school districts based largely on socio-economic status, apparently discount the ability of everyday Americans to make sound decisions about their children’s education. So many have bought into the teacher unions’ lie: “Let us, the education experts, decide where your kids should go to school.”
That might not sound too ridiculous at first. But can you imagine what would happen if the United Auto Workers of America started mandating precisely what type of car you were allowed to drive? You can believe even the most anti-voucher member of Congress would cry foul if he were told what to drive to work. Why, then, won’t state and federal legislators extend the same courtesy to every family in the country with respect to education?
Perhaps the solution is one of semantics. Whereas many Red-state-ers love the word “voucher,” the term doesn’t resonate with the people who need them most. I doubt many working-class Latin American families think of “vouchers” when searching for ways out of persistently poor-performing schools. For that reason, calling “vouchers” opportunity “scholarships” makes far more sense. Anyone who has ever contemplated paying for college understands the value of a scholarship.
That is an important concept for school choice-minded leaders of black and Hispanic communities to consider. Once we can raise enough support for publicly funded scholarships (and scholarships generally), ever-responsive, vote-seeking politicians will have to listen.
Representatives of minority communities across the country must themselves be taught that school choice is neither Red nor Blue. Most of all, it has the potential to help those who are shades of black and brown.
Complicated tax credit schemes and notions of non-compulsory education all miss an important point. While these plans are nice to chat about over dinner with economists and libertarians, the vast majority of minority families believe in the value of publicly funded education, and many remember the fight to get into schools in the first place. The best service to them is to ensure publicly funded entrance into the schools that are best for them. It is a dream a long time coming, and one that should be embraced on both sides of the political aisle.
At a reception in the spring I heard Rod Paige, former secretary of education, say the following: “The Declaration of Independence says that ‘all men are created equal.’ Well, without a proper education he won’t stay that way for long.”
Dr. Paige is right. The fight for meaningful education options is a fight as important as any that has been waged. Then, we fought against proponents of the status quo who wanted to keep people “separate but equal.” Now, we fight against a system that seeks to keep people equally ignorant.
Shaka L.A. Mitchell, J.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate director of policy and planning for the Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform.