Congress keeps school choice to itself
Created on April 27, 2009
Congress, Obama Flunk Test of Commitment to Parental Choice in
Talk aboutthe audacity of "nope."
"When parents recognize which schools are failing to educate
their children," Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a guest
column in The Wall Street Journal, "they will demand more effective
options for their kids."
Americans "must close the achievement gap by pursuing what works
best for kids, regardless of ideology," Duncan urged, echoing a theme in President Barack
Obama's address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "In the
path to a better education system, that's the only test that really
What about the smell test? Duncan's assertion may have sounded
good to many parents, but as The Heritage Foundation's blog noted, it
came only two weeks after he delivered bad newsto 200 low-income families in
Washington, D.C.: The Obama administration was taking back $7,500
scholarships that gave children in those families a way out of
failing public schools.
What Duncan didn't explain is why the Obama administration would
say "nope" to those kids. Or why he would acquiesce to the raw,
ideology-based determination of the teachers' unions and liberals
in Congress to pull the plug on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
program after next school year.
The number of votes arrayed against these in-demand scholarships
for poor kids was especially intriguing in light of Heritage's
new survey on how many members of Congress personally exercised
"private school choice." The survey is the subject of this edition
of "à la chart," the free information graphic from
Fully 38 percent of those in Congress -- 44 percent in the
Senate, 36 percent in the House -- sent one or more children to
private school, the survey found. About 20 percent attended private
school themselves, nearly twice the rate of the public.
"Nothing wrong with those numbers; no one should be faulted for
personal decisions made in the best interests of loved ones," The Washington Post commented in an editorial.
"Wouldn't it be nice, though, if Congress extended similar
consideration to low-income D.C. parents desperate to keep their
sons and daughters in good schools?"
On the fate of the scholarships, the Post continued: "The gap
between what Congress practices and what it preaches was best
illustrated by The Heritage Foundation's analysis of a recent vote
to preserve the program. The measure was defeated by the Senate 58
to 39; it would have passed if senators who exercised school choice
for their own children had voted in favor."
A study by Duncan's own Department of Education found that
students enrolled the longest in a private or charter school under
the program actually
reached a reading level up to two years ahead of applicants who
had to stay in public schools.
Surprisingly, the Congressional Black Caucus -- more than a
third of whose members sent children to private school -- didn't
step up to save the $14 million scholarship program, which serves
But they, along with other senators and representatives, didn't
have a chance to read that study.
As columnist George Will observed:
"After Congress debated the program, the Department of Education
released -- on a Friday afternoon, a news cemetery -- a
congressionally mandated study showing that, measured by student
improvement and parental satisfaction, the District's program
works. The department could not suppress The Heritage
Foundation's report that 38 percent of members of Congress sent
or are sending their children to private schools.
"The Senate voted 58-39 to kill the program. Heritage reports
that if the senators who have exercised their ability to choose
private schools had voted to continue the program that allows
less-privileged parents to make that choice for their children, the
program would have been preserved."
On school choice, Congress looks increasingly out of step with
Eleven states, in addition to the District of Columbia, offer
voucher programs to lift children out of bad schools. Seven offer
scholarship tax credits. Private-school scholarships last year
helped 171,000 children -- up 89 percent since 2004.
"Recent experience suggests school-choice policies are gaining
momentum in state legislatures," Heritage researcher Lindsey Burke
also notes in her report on
the survey findings. "From 2007 to 2008, 44 states introduced
So why did the National Education Association and other special
interests that contribute to politicians fight so hard to end a
little D.C. scholarship program?
"One likely reason: fear," Heritage senior analyst Dan Lips
writes in an op-ed co-authored with Burke. "Once other
parents see that giving families the power to choose the best
school for their kids can improve students' performance, they might
demand to have school choice for their children."
Now that sounds like the kind of parental empowerment Arne
Duncan and Barack Obama say they believe in.