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Congress keeps school choice to itself

Created on April 27, 2009

Congress keeps school choice to itself

Congress, Obama Flunk Test of Commitment to Parental Choice in Schools

By Ken McIntyre

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 matters."

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 Heritage.

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 1,700 children.

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 parents.

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 school-choice legislation."

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.