September 10, 2009 | Commentary on Education
The president has countless things to worry about, but at least he can be confident his children are safe. Whether the First Family is vacationing in the Grand Canyon or hosting town halls in New Hampshire, Secret Service agents are always on the job.
This is true even when the Obama daughters are in about the safest place imaginable: the hallowed halls of the exclusive Sidwell Friends private school, where they attend classes along with the other children of Washington's privileged elite.
Of course, most Washington, D.C. parents don't have the Secret Service, and most don't have Sidwell Friends, either. But they certainly want their children to be safe in the public schools they attend. Unfortunately, they have good reason to be concerned about school safety.
A recent review by The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis found that D.C. police responded to more than 900 emergency calls from schools during the 2007-'08 school year (the most recent year for which complete information is available).
This confirms information gathered by the U.S. Department of Education. It reported this year that one of every eight D.C. high school students was "threatened or injured" with a weapon on school property in 2008. And The Washington Post reports that on a typical day in 2007, nine violent incidents were reported in D.C. schools.
No wonder so many parents are eager to opt out of the D.C. public schools. They realize their children are at risk, and they want to provide a safer learning environment than the neighborhood school. And indeed, surveys of families that participate in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program found that safety is a major factor in how parents choose schools.
Sadly, hundreds of parents lost that choice this year.
The federal government withdrew Opportunity Scholarships from 200 students who were supposed to start the program this school year. That's because Congress, at the behest of powerful teachers' unions, is working to end the popular program, which allows children to escape D.C.'s failing public schools and attend safer private or charter schools.
There's no way for these parents to know how safe their child's neighborhood school is, because the D.C. public schools Web site doesn't list dangerous schools. However, the Heritage researchers reviewed the 70 public schools these students have been reassigned to. Their findings aren't encouraging for the students' educational prospects.
For school year 2007-'08, the D.C. police received reports of 2,379 crime-related incidents from these schools, including 666 violent incidents (2.7 per 100 students).
There were 555 reported assaults (2.3 per 100 students).
There were 855 property-crime incidents (3.5 per 100 students), including 278 thefts (1.1 incidents per 100 students).
There were 306 incidents of disorderly conduct (1.3 per 100 students) and 43 reports of gunshots.
Information is power, and the least the public schools should do is provide accurate information to parents. A complete breakdown of all incidents in each school should go home with every report card and be available in real time on the Web.
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers should give others the same school choice they exercise. A 2007 Heritage Foundation study showed that 37 percent of representatives and 45 percent of senators in the 110th Congress sent their children to private schools. That's almost four times the rate of the general population.
Yet last spring, the Senate voted 58-39 to kill an amendment that would have allowed the Opportunity Scholarship program to continue. The amendment would have passed if senators who sent their own children to private school had voted for it.
Lawmakers shouldn't deny poor parents the school choice they themselves enjoy.
Instead, Congress should work with public school leaders to expand school choice opportunities. That would be the best way to provide a safe, effective learning environment to D.C.'s public school children -- the ones who can't rely on the Secret Service.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Townhall