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National School Choice Week: It's personal

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Expect to hear the phrase "school choice" more than usual over the next few days.

The fourth week of January is National School Choice Week, and advocates for educational freedom across the country will be highlighting its effectiveness for children.

More than 150 state and national organizations are participating, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options and the Institute for Justice. House Speaker John Boehner, Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, are also touting the school choice message.

Why school choice? Economist Milton Friedman best stated the philosophy behind it: "You can subsidize the producer, or you can subsidize the consumer. In education, we subsidize the producer; we subsidize the school. If you subsidize the student instead, you would have competition. The student could choose which school he would go to and that would force the schools to improve and to meet the tastes of their students." But you don't have to get philosophical. Just ask the kids.

Eleven year-old Paul wants to be an architect someday. He received a voucher through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to attend a private school. The opportunity to do so, says Paul, "has impacted his life in many ways." "In my old public school, people screamed at the teacher, walked out (of) the school door in class, hurt me and made fun of all my friends. People did not pay attention, which made it hard for me to focus.

When I first came to (my private) school, I made lots of friends the first day. It is easier for me to focus. In the second quarter I got all 'A's, except for French, (in) which I got a 'B'." Jordan is a former D.C. Opportunity Scholarship student who now attends Oberlin College.

In an interview when she was 17, Jordan described the opportunity to choose a school as life-changing: "Being a recipient of the Opportunity Scholarship has meant far more to me than can be quantified with words. It has allowed me a stellar education at less than 10 percent of the tuition. It has opened my eyes to opportunities far beyond what I knew to be available. This would not have been possible without having a choice in my education." Jordan is now on a full scholarship to Oberlin where she studies Japanese.

Stories like these aren't unusual. Indeed, the data confirm them.

Last June, the U.S. Department of Education released its final evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The department's findings confirmed what so many parents and students already knew: parents of scholarship students were more satisfied with their child's school, and were more likely to rate their child's school as being safe than parents of children in D.C. Public Schools.

Students who received a voucher also scored slightly higher on tests of reading achievement than their public-school peers. Most notably, those who used a voucher to attend a private school had a 91 percent graduation rate. In D.C. Public Schools, graduation rates stand at just 49 percent.

The findings released by the Department of Education add to a growing body of research that finds school choice benefits families in many ways. And the benefits of school-choice options, provided through tax credits, vouchers, charter schools and online learning, for example, are achieved often at a fraction of what public schools spend per pupil.

Yet there are those who wish to maintain the failed status quo. And unfortunately, their voices are loud. One of the first casualties of President Obama's education agenda was school choice. Due largely to pressure from special-interest groups such as the education unions, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is being phased out.

For now, no new students are allowed to receive scholarships. Despite its success, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program will end unless Congress reauthorizes it. And the government public education system — a one-size-fits-all approach to education in a dynamic world — will continue to fail students nationwide.

School choice works. It ensures students are safe, meets their social and emotional needs, increases academic achievement and attainment, is more economical and empowers parents. National School Choice Week will highlight these successes, so that state and local leaders can build on this proven model.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Denver Post

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