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Taking School Choice for Granted: Political Leaders Send Their Kids to Good Schools, Yet Deny That Option to the Poor

By and

President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and most members of Congress have never known the sense of desperation that LaTasha Bennett feels.

Bennett is one of hundreds of Washington, D.C., parents who recently opened a letter from the U.S. Department of Education with devastating news: Her child was no longer eligible to receive a private-school scholarship for the upcoming school year. This sent Bennett and other parents scrambling to find their children spots in good public schools -- a challenge in a city where few students read at grade level and barely half graduate from high school.

President and Mrs. Obama faced the same problem when they moved to the District in January, but they were able to afford a private school for their daughters. And for Secretary Duncan and his wife, finding a good school was a top concern when deciding where to live in the D.C. area. They wound up choosing Arlington, Va., a community with good public schools. Duncan recently told Science magazine: "My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education."

Members of Congress also face the issue of finding a good school for their children. The Heritage Foundation recently surveyed Congress to find out where members' children went to school. The survey found that 38 percent had at one time enrolled a child in private school. Senators (44 percent) were slightly more likely to have chosen a private school for their children than representatives (36 percent).

Nationally, only 11 percent of all students attend private school. Of course, paying private-school tuition -- after paying taxes to support the public schools -- is a lot easier to do on the six-figure salary of a member of Congress.

Incidentally, the survey also revealed that members of Congress are nearly twice as likely (20 percent) as the general public to have attended a private high school. President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Vice President Joe Biden all graduated from private high schools.

Of course, no one should begrudge our elected officials their having attended good schools, or their choosing good schools for their children. However, President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and many members of Congress apparently fail to recognize that other parents -- regardless of their backgrounds -- would also like to be able to choose their children's schools.

Many families -- particularly those headed by low-income parents -- can't afford private-school tuition or the cost of housing in a community with good public schools. All too often, they're forced to send their children to the nearest public school, regardless of its quality.

In 2004, Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program to give thousands of disadvantaged families in the District the power to choose their children's schools. After five years, the program is a tremendous success, and it is wildly popular. At least four students have applied for each available scholarship. Parents are more satisfied with the safety and quality of their children's schools. And there is new evidence that participating students are benefiting academically: A federal evaluation found that students who received scholarships now have higher reading test scores than their peers who stayed in public school. Scholarship students who have been in the program the longest have made nearly two years' more progress in reading than their peers.

Since the administration has pledged to fund what works, one might assume it would support expanding a program that has boosted disadvantaged kids' test scores. Instead the administration has stood by as liberals on Capitol Hill have worked to end the program -- inserting language into a recent spending bill that schedules it to end in 2010.

President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and members of Congress should imagine themselves in the shoes of less fortunate D.C. parents. Would they want a scholarship if they had no other choice but to enroll their kids in the District's low-performing schools? The answer is obvious.

District parents should take heart that the injustice of denying families school choice is being noticed in the world of elite opinion. The Washington Post has published a series of pointed editorials exposing the effort to kill the program. Monday's editorial highlighted the hypocrisy of politicians denying poor families the same options they value: "We don't think it's too much to expect our leaders to treat their constituents with the same fairness and regard they demand for their own families."

In this respect, the D.C. voucher debate presents President Obama with a great opportunity to match his words with action. Before his inauguration, he published an open letter to his daughters explaining why he had sought the presidency. Obama wrote: "In the end, girls, that's why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation. I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential -- schools that challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world around them. I want them to have the chance to go to college -- even if their parents aren't rich."

President Obama now has the chance to live up to that promise by fighting to give low-income families the power of school choice that politicians take for granted.

Lindsey Burke is a research assistant in domestic policy and Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in National Review Online

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