September 12, 2007

September 12, 2007 | Commentary on Education

Lessons in school  choice

Recently, GQ magazine compiled its list of the 50 most powerful people in the nation's capital. Political leaders such as Condoleezza Rice, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi topped the list.

But look who's at number 42: Mason Lecky, the 31-year-old director of admissions at St. Albans School, an exclusive private school that members of Congress often want their sons to attend.

Why wouldn't they? Accomplished graduates of St. Albans include Al Gore, Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Besides, many lawmakers want to help their children escape Washington's public schools.

That's only reasonable. By some measures, D.C. public schools are the worst in the country. For example, District fourth-graders finished dead last in math on the government's state-by-state 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Federal lawmakers turn to schools such as St. Albans because they know how bad the D.C. schools are. In a survey conducted this year by The Heritage Foundation, 37 percent of U.S. congressmen and 45 percent of senators who responded said they sent their children to private school. Nationwide only 11.5 percent of students go to private schools.

But here's the problem: Many lawmakers seem to favor "school choice for me, not for thee."

Since 2001 Congress has rejected several measures that would have granted parents more control of their children's education.

During the first debate over the No Child Left Behind bill, for example, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down an amendment that would have given scholarships to students attending low-performing or dangerous public schools. That vote was 273-155. That same year, the Senate voted 58-41 to defeat a pilot program that would have provided scholarships to low-income students.

What's interesting is that, based on the results of a 2003 Heritage survey of where lawmakers send their children to school, both amendments would have passed if the representatives and senators who exercised school choice for their own families had voted in favor of school choice for other parents.

To be fair, lawmakers have taken small steps toward allowing school choice in D.C.

In 2004, the "D.C. Choice Incentive Act" squeaked through the House by one vote. The same proposal sailed through the Senate by a comfortable margin of 65-28, thus giving children trapped in low-performing public schools the opportunity to apply for a scholarship to attend the private school of their choice.

That's been good for kids. Two reports -- one by Georgetown University, another by the U.S. Department of Education -- show that the program is making a difference. Parents are more involved in their children's education, for example. The program is so popular it has roughly three applicants for every available slot.

No surprise here, since study after study nationwide has shown that students using scholarships to attend private schools performed significantly better academically than they had while assigned to a failing public school.

As children head back to class this month, parents should ponder whether their public schools are giving students a quality education. When schools are failing children, our entire society is failing them and we're putting our future at risk. It doesn't have to be that way.

"If every member of Congress who has sent their child to a private school were to vote consistently with the choices they have exercised, the [voucher] program would continue and be reauthorized with a healthy margin," Evan Feinberg writes in his report on this year's Heritage survey of school choice. Furthermore, "37 percent of House Democrats have practiced school choice, but 96 percent of Democrats who practiced school choice voted against the voucher program in 2004."

With or without Mason Lecky in charge of admissions, St. Albans undoubtedly will remain a popular destination for the sons of policymakers. If lawmakers would extend school choice to other parents, though, more Americans would be able to enjoy the benefits of a quality education.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in the Indy Star