June 26, 2002 | Commentary on Education
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
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.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire