August 26, 2006

August 26, 2006 | Commentary on Education

Baltimore students deserve school vouchers

Bad news just keeps coming for Baltimore City public schools.

The city's high-school graduation rate has slipped below 40 percent -- worse than every city in America except Detroit. State education officials recently labeled six Baltimore City public schools as "persistently dangerous." Some 22,000 students languish in schools that have failed state benchmarks for six or more years.

Unfortunately, Maryland state lawmakers appear unwilling to reform even the worst public schools in Baltimore City. During the last legislative session, Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed a state takeover of 11 chronically failing public schools. The General Assembly not only approved a measure to delay changes for one year, it overrode Gov. Ehrlich's veto of the legislation.

Yet change could come to city schools if the Bush administration and some in Congress have their way. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill to unveil a plan to give private-school scholarships to disadvantaged students in some of the country's lowest-performing public schools.

The Opportunity Scholarship Initiative would provide $100 million in grants to cities such as Baltimore with a high density of failing schools. The grants would be used to give low-income public-school students scholarships to attend private school or intensive after-school tutoring programs. Only students in the lowest-performing public schools would be eligible. In Baltimore, that would include more than 40 schools, attended by more than a quarter of the city's public-school students.

"Accountability is hollow without real options for parents," Spellings said. Families in "communities where schools fall short deserve choices when it comes to their children's education."

For an example of the success of such programs, Baltimore residents need look only 40 miles down the road to Washington, D.C., where the only federally funded program has attracted so much interest that Congress already is considering legislation to double its size.

Moreover, a growing body of academic research has found that these programs benefit not just those who participate, but those who remain in public schools.

Consider Milwaukee. There, students from low-income families have used publicly funded scholarships to attend private school since 1990. Lawmakers have expanded the program from 1,300 students in 1995 to 15,000 in 2005 to 22,500 next year, thanks to legislation signed in March by Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat.

It's working for those who use the vouchers -- graduation rates from Milwaukee's private schools stand at 64 percent, compared to 36 percent for its public schools. But evidence from researchers from Harvard and Princeton indicates that public schools there have improved and now offer more services to better compete with the private schools. Those most exposed to competition improved faster than those not exposed to it, Harvard University Professor Caroline Hoxby found.

Baltimore certainly fits the profile to be one of the 10 or so cities that will be selected for this program if approved. But the proposal faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill, where powerful special-interest groups, such as teacher unions, will lobby to protect the status quo.

Baltimore Cityparents should ask their congressional representatives to support giving children in failing schools tuition scholarships to receive a quality education. They also should ask their leaders in Annapolis why school-choice reforms haven't been tried in Baltimore City.

And while they're at it, they might inquire how many more students must pass through the city's failing schools before politicians give all parents the chance to send their children to a quality school.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

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