September 24, 2003

September 24, 2003 | Commentary on Education

Opportunity For Me, Not For Thee

No matter how long it's been, you don't forget some of the things you learned in kindergarten: Two plus two equals four. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Share your toys. Play nice.

For most of us, these concepts guide the rest of our lives, but others seem to need a refresher course. In fact, some people in the nation's capital may need to sit in the corner and think about their actions. They have been caught saying one thing and doing another, and that's not nice. For example, when it comes to their own children, many members of Congress support parental choice. In a recent survey, the Heritage Foundation asked every representative and senator whether he has ever sent a child to a private school. Of those responding, 41 percent of representatives and 46 percent of senators have done so. In the general population, only about 10 percent of students are enrolled in private schools.

Surveys in 2000 and 2001 turned up similar results. Our elected representatives like school choice for themselves. And while many claim that they "support our public schools," the numbers show they're less likely to place their children there.

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), and Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), are among those who have used private schools for their children. Sen. Specter's attended a private school in Philadelphia because, according to their father, "they didn't have access to a good public school."

Of course, most students in the nation's capital also lack access to a quality public school. And few can afford private-school tuition. Sen. Specter's opposition to parental-choice legislation has helped make sure they'll be denied the leg up his children enjoyed.

Or consider Sen. Landrieu's response to nine-year-old Mosiyah Hall when he asked where the lawmaker sends her children. Georgetown Day, as it turns out. Landrieu's children will never rub shoulders with struggling public-school students like Mosiyah Hall.

Sadly, many of the same policymakers who exercise choice in their own children's education have consistently voted to block legislation that would have given poor families the same range of options. In fact, had all members of Congress voted in a way that was consistent with their own private practice, every piece of voucher legislation voted on in the past three years would have passed.

Nevertheless, redemption is at hand. The Senate will soon consider legislation already approved by the House that would grant low-income families in the District of Columbia the chance to choose where their children attend school.

The proposal would enable low-income parents there to enroll their children in private schools through a scholarship program. Under the bill, the maximum scholarship is $7,500, and $15 million is authorized for the program.

The district clearly needs to do something. It spends more than $12,000 per student and has only 15 pupils for every teacher. Still, fewer than 10 percent of the district's eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, math, and science, according to national assessments. More than half lack even a basic knowledge of these subjects. Federally funded scholarship vouchers would be a modest step that could make a big difference to poor children, without harming the existing public-school system.

If every member of congress who uses private schools opts to give disadvantaged D.C. families the same access, the legislation will become law. After all, 46 percent of the Senate has used private schools.

Before taking a side, our senators would do well to remember their schoolhouse lessons. In this case, "do as I say not as I do" spells h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y.

Krista Kafer is senior education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Reprinted with permission of The National Review