January 22, 2003

January 22, 2003 | Commentary on Education

Kids slipping through the cracks

The defense attorneys for John Lee Malvo have their work cut out for them. Trying to get jurors to feel any sympathy for a young man charged in the murders that paralyzed the Washington, D.C., area last fall will be quite a challenge. And there's no question that if he's found guilty, he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

As a parent, I can't get past something Malvo's father said when interviewed shortly after his arrest. "I'm surprised he'd be involved in something like this," he said. "I haven't seen him in four or five years, but he seemed like a nice kid back then."

Or Malvo's mother, who abandoned him not once but twice, moving both times not an hour away but a boat-ride - across the ocean - from her son.

It's not that we can blame them if he's convicted. By the age of 17, people know that murder is wrong. But imagine if things had been different for Malvo. Imagine if, instead of being shuffled between schools with huge enrollments, he'd found a different kind of learning environment - one where people came to know him. And where he wasn't a number but a person whose educational progress mattered to all the teachers and administrators in his school.

Imagine if one of those teachers had recognized his rough upbringing and stepped in to help him. For that matter, imagine if anyone other than John Muhammad, the jobless, frustrated, twice-divorced disconnected drifter who fancied violence and firearms, had taken Malvo under his or her wing? Who might the young man have become?

John Malvo got left behind - and not just by his father and mother. Yes, it's possible nothing any school system could have done would have saved him. But it's also possible that if he'd gotten in the right education system - if he'd found a single person who cared - everything for him and his victims might have turned out differently.

Malvo is an extreme case, but he isn't the only student who may have benefited from a different approach to his education. Those who attend failing schools or schools where they don't fit in or schools designed to meet special needs but not their special needs probably get little more from their educational experience than he did.

That's where school choice comes in. Students in failing schools must be allowed to move to schools where they can get the education they need. If their school districts offer such places, great. If not, their districts have the responsibility to create or otherwise make available such places.

The keys, according to "Agenda 2003" - The Heritage Foundation's 167-page guidebook to what policies should be pursued in this session of Congress - are information and options. That's where the No Child Left Behind Act comes in.

The law, which recently marked its first anniversary, requires schools to measure their performance every year and provide the results to parents and the media. That's the information. As for options, parents whose children attend failing schools for two straight years can, in some cases, move their kids to other schools in the district, to charter schools in other cases, and to private schools - with vouchers to help defray the costs - in still others.

Charter schools are free public schools that bypass the red tape that normal schools endure, such as requirements that only those with education degrees can teach. Considering the significant academic gains they produce for their students, they must be on to something.

Progress has begun on both the information and choice fronts. States such as Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio have begun aggressive programs to measure success in math and reading. Moreover, the president's 2004 budget proposes $1.1 billion for programs designed to assure that all school children can read and write by third grade. At present, 40 percent or more continue to struggle with these basic skills at that age.

This year, Congress needs to do more, as "Agenda 2003" points out. It should continue to expand choice in special education, so parents who are frustrated - thankfully, a minority - with their experiences can move. Also, it should expand choices in vocational education and higher education. Offer vo-tech programs through high schools. Let high-school students who are capable begin college work. Make it work for as many people as possible. That's what school choice is all about.

Too many of our kids are falling through the cracks. A system that affords maximum choice stands the best chance of engaging the maximum number of students in productive activities. Someone or something is going to pique kids' interests. Will it be quality education programs … or the likes of John Muhammad?

Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.

About the Author

Rebecca Hagelin Senior Communications Fellow

Reprinted with permission of the Internet newspaper WorldNetDaily.com.