November 8, 2002

November 8, 2002 | Commentary on Education

ED110802: A Choice Future

The big winners on Election Day weren't politicians. They were students.

That's because many of the politicians who won -- Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Senator-elect James Talent of Missouri, to name just two -- are vocal supporters of school choice.

Coming only a few months after the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of school choice, the election results are sure to give the school-choice movement a welcome shot of momentum. And rather than continue to fight it, teachers' unions and other opponents should see school choice for what it is -- a chance to help poor students trapped in failing schools and let competition encourage our schools to improve.

The court's decision to uphold the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which provides tuition vouchers to low-income children, has created a ripple effect. Lawmakers in several states, including Kansas and Missouri, have proposed choice legislation. Other school-choice supporters have pledged to challenge so-called Blaine Amendments that prevent vouchers from going to religious schools in many states.

The need for reform is urgent. Sixty-eight percent of fourth-graders can't read at a proficient level. One nationally administered math exam showed that 74 percent of eighth-graders were performing below "proficient." And in 2000, nearly one-third of all high-school seniors failed to meet minimum graduation requirements.

Meanwhile, research continues to demonstrate that choice helps "at-risk" students perform better, promotes parental involvement and fosters competition and accountability in public schools. A recent Manhattan Institute study found that public schools exposed to competition through school-choice programs in San Antonio have improved to the point where they're performing "as well as or better than 85 percent of all Texas school districts." Test scores for students in similar schools in Milwaukee also have improved, the study found.

That may explain why more states are willing to give choice a chance. Ten states offer publicly funded vouchers, education tax credits or both; 39 offer publicly-financed-yet-independent charter schools; and all 50 allow home schooling. Today, some 50,000 students are benefiting from more than 100 privately funded scholarship programs that let them attend schools they choose.

And momentum continues to build. As a result of the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," children at the 8,652 American public schools deemed to be failing now are eligible to transfer to better schools or receive supplemental services such as tutoring. President Bush also signed legislation authorizing tax-free education savings accounts to help parents save for K-12 expenses.

In Kansas, state Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe, a committed school-choice supporter, plans to introduce a voucher bill -- the "Parents in Control of Education Act" -- for the ninth straight year and hopes the Supreme Court victory will improve its chances. State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, intends to re-introduce her parent-teacher tax credit legislation when the 2003 legislative session opens in January. Landwehr's bill would allow both parents and teachers to take a tax credit of up to $500 for out-of-pocket educational expenses.

Until O'Connor and Landwehr's vigilance is rewarded, low-income students can escape failing schools by applying for privately funded scholarships or by enrolling in one of the state's 30 charter schools. Thanks to organizations such as Children First: CEO Kansas, low-income students received the state's first privately funded scholarships in the Wichita area this year. And students in 118 low-performing schools in Kansas may be eligible to transfer to better schools in their district.

In Missouri, parents must battle their governor, Bob Holden, a Democrat, who opposes school choice and vetoed funding for charter schools in 2001. Today, 26 charters schools serve nearly 5,000 children in Missouri. Thanks to the "No Child Left Behind" Act, students at 62 low-performing Missouri schools were eligible to transfer to a better-performing public school in their district this fall. And because of private scholarship foundations such as the Gateway Educational Trust and the Children's Scholarship Fund of Kansas City, more than 1,200 low-income students have escaped failing schools with the help of privately funded vouchers.
Choice always has existed for families with the means to relocate or enroll their children in private schools. Parental choice policies, including vouchers, charter schools and tax credits/deductions, open schoolhouse doors for millions of students who otherwise have no choice but to attend failing schools. With the Supreme Court decision clearing a path for vouchers, expect 2003 to be a year in which legislators make great strides helping students gain the education they desperately need.

Jennifer Garrett, a domestic policy researcher at The Heritage Foundation is the co-author of the forthcoming book "School Choice 2003: What's Happening in the States."

About the Author

Jennifer Garrett Research Associate

Related Issues: Education

Distributed in the Kansas City Star