February 26, 1998

February 26, 1998 | Commentary on Education

School Choice, Charter Schools March On

While praising many grassroots educational reforms during his State of the Union address, President Clinton could not bring himself even to acknowledge, much less laud, private school choice. The concept remains anathema to the president -- and to the teacher's unions without whose enormous campaign aid he might not now be president.

But except for this glaring omission, Clinton was on the mark in singling out public school choice and charter schools as large factors in making 1997 "the most important year for education in a generation" -- especially for American parents forced by low incomes to send their children to failing and unsafe schools.

Overall, 32 states considered a school-choice program of some kind last year, while 45 governors touted school choice or charter schools (public schools freed from many stifling bureaucratic rules). Behind this outburst of support is mounting research showing a steady decline in public school test scores, safety, availability of teaching supplies, and accountability -- especially in prominent cities like the District of Columbia.

Factors contributing to this unsettling record, noted The Washington Post, were "unstable leadership, huge bureaucracies and special-interest groups." Such problems are precisely the ones that a vigorous school-choice program can fix.

School choice appeals especially to parents too poor to send their kids anywhere but to the school down the street. In April, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported that more than 70 percent of African-Americans who earn less than $15,000 a year back school choice. Young parents are most supportive of all: An astonishing 86.5 percent of blacks aged 25 to 35 favor school choice, up from 61 percent in 1996.

Meanwhile, the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Texas business and civic organization, joined the bipartisan grassroots movement in support of school choice.

Even the monolithic opposition of the education establishment is showing a few cracks. In Milwaukee, Wis. -- home of a robust school-choice program -- John Gardner, a member of the city's school board, has admitted that "competition provided by the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program ... made the critical difference in instituting long-overdue reforms [in the public school system]."

On the charter-school front, Ohio, Mississippi, Nevada and Pennsylvania passed charter legislation, bringing the number of charter-school states to 29. For good reason charter schools are on a roll: A Hudson Institute report finds they work best for previously sub-par students, spurring nearly half to "excellent" or "above average" work.

The U.S. Department of Education has found something else about charter schools: They don't "skim" the most fortunate or the brightest students from regular public schools, leaving those schools more hopeless than ever. In fact, 50 percent of charter-school students are minorities, and more than 40 percent receive free or subsidized lunches -- indicators of family poverty.

Meanwhile, the public-education monopolists are on the attack. For instance, the American Federation of Teachers is asking Ohio courts to outlaw that state's choice experiment. But motions are flying both ways. In Colorado, 3,500 parents (mostly minorities) have filed suit against the Denver School District for failing to provide a high-quality education. The parents want school choice.

The Ohio suit is especially unconscionable given Cleveland's promising new school-choice experiment. In an assessment of that program conducted by scholars from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin, 63 percent of parents using choice pronounce themselves "very satisfied' with the academic quality of their chosen schools. Fewer than 30 percent of public-school parents say that. Parents using choice are also "very satisfied" with their schools' safety record, discipline and values.

The numbers that count, of course, are those measuring academic achievement. The researchers also found that Cleveland children attending schools created under the choice program improved in reading and math (the latter by 15 percentage points) in just one year. Test scores of poor, urban minority students typically decline a bit each year.

If anything, 1998 promises to be an even more successful year for real educational reform. The D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act would give a choice of schools to poor kids in the District of Columbia -- if President Clinton doesn't veto the measure. Lawmakers in 12 states are poised to introduce charter-school legislation. In Virginia, just such a bill is a House vote and a governor's pen stroke away from becoming law.

As America heads toward the 21st century, parents and educators should demand public- and private-school choice and charter schools. No one should rest until we restore every American child's true birthright: the ability to attend a good, safe school.

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