June 26, 2002

June 26, 2002 | Commentary on Education

School Choice: A Lesson in Hypocrisy

Pity the low-income parents who have children trapped in failing schools.They want their sons and daughters to get a decent education, but they lack the means to make that happen. They watch Congress repeatedly reject school-choice measures such as tuition vouchers. The Supreme Court is expected to rule any day now on whether an Ohio voucher program is constitutional -- and a defeat could place the goal of getting a quality education for their children even further out of reach.

The topper, though, has to be the fact that many of the same federal lawmakers who consign their constituents' children to failing schools -- by denying them school choice -- exercise school choice for themselves: They have sent, or are sending, their own children to private schools. It's a pattern of hypocrisy that emerges year after year, whenever education legislation comes up for a vote.

Consider the fate of House Amendment 57 to the No Child Left Behind Act. The proposal would have let children in low-performing and dangerous schools attend alternative schools selected by their parents. It was defeated, 273-155, on May 23 of last year. Of the House members who voted against it, 69 had sent or were sending at least one child to private school. Had these members voted for the amendment, it would have passed by a vote of 224-204.

Then there was House Amendment 58 to the No Child Left Behind Act. It would have authorized up to five school-choice research demonstration projects, so that lawmakers could see for themselves how school choice helps disadvantaged students achieve more. It was defeated, 241-186, the same day as House Amendment 57. In this case, 58 members who voted against it had exercised private school choice for their own children. Had they, so to speak, preached what they practice, the amendment would have passed, 244-183.

This double standard isn't confined to the House. Senate Amendment 536 to the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act, which would have funded a low-income school choice demonstration program, failed by a vote of 58-41 on June 12, 2001. Thirteen senators who rejected the amendment had sent or were sending their children to private school. Had they voted to provide the same option to low-income families desperate to exercise that same choice, the amendment would have passed, 54-45.

How do we know that certain lawmakers keep their own children from attending the schools they consign others to? Because we asked them, and they told us. (More details can be found in The Heritage Foundation report "Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice.")

It also appears the number of lawmakers who send their children to private schools is growing. A Heritage Foundation survey found that 47 percent of House members and 51 percent of senators with school-age children sent them to private schools in 2001. That's up from 40 percent and 49 percent, respectively, in a similar 2000 poll by Heritage researchers.

These lawmakers aren't alone: About one in 10 parents across the country send their children to private school, and support for school choice is strong. An April 2001 survey released by the non-profit group Parents in Charge found that 82 percent of parents want to be in charge of their children's education, and 72 percent believe that the competition resulting from choice would improve education.

Surveys repeatedly show that the strongest supporters of school choice are low-income minority parents. A 2000 poll by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform found that 70 percent of African-American parents earning below $15,000 a year support school choice. A 2001 survey by Opiniones Latinas, an affiliate of the polling firm McLaughlin and Associates, found that more than 73 percent of Hispanics agree the government should provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income families dissatisfied with their children's public schools.

Why this high level of support? Because these groups are the ones whose children are most likely to be trapped in failing public schools. They're not interested in hearing the teachers' unions make dire predictions about how school choice will ruin public schools; they know from experience that many already are ruined. They care about their children. It's time for Congress to give them the educational opportunities they crave for their children -- and to stop denying them the same choice they exercise themselves.

Jennifer Garrett, a domestic policy researcher at The Heritage Foundation, is the co-editor of "School Choice 2001: What's Happening in the States," a Heritage guidebook on school choice.

About the Author

Jennifer Garrett Research Associate

Related Issues: Education

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