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Education Notebook on Education

February 8, 2006

February 8, 2006 | Education Notebook on Education

Budget Proposal Gives a Chance for School Choice

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK: 
Budget Proposal Gives a Chance for School Choice

February 8, 2006

President George W. Bush's just-released 2007 budget includes $100 million for a program to help 25,000 low-income children transfer out of failing public schools. Capitol Hill is now set to become the next battleground in the fight to give parents greater control over their children's education.

America's Opportunity Scholarship for Kids would offer scholarships to children from low-income families: $4,000 to transfer out of a poorly performing public school and into a private school. Alternatively, eligible families could opt for a $3,000 grant for after-school tutoring.

Eligibility would be restricted to those children who attend a public school that has failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals for six years under No Child Left Behind. The Department of Education estimates that 2,000 public schools may fit this description.

President Bush included a similar school choice program in his original No Child Left Behind proposal in 2001. However, the controversial provision was struck from the bill early on.

Five years later, President Bush is in a strong position to argue that Congress should offer children trapped in persistently failing schools a way out. A central tenet of No Child Left Behind was that children in underperforming schools should be able to transfer into better schools. That's largely gone unfulfilled.

So far, children's options have been limited to transferring into better public schools. But school districts with a high proportion of persistently failing schools often don't have seats available in better schools. A 2004 Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights report found that less than 2 percent of eligible children participated in public school choice-far below the number of children who have applied.

America's Opportunity Scholarship for Kids would give these children new options. The initiative follows on the heels of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, passed by Congress in 2004, which provides scholarships to low-income children in the nation's capital. About 1,700 children participate in the D.C. voucher program, and just as many children are on the waiting list to receive a scholarship. Early research on the program has found that school choice increased parents' satisfaction with their children's schools.

Like the President's new initiative, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program faced an uphill battle when it was introduced--in particular because of well-organized opposition from teacher's unions and public school interest groups. The D.C. program passed thanks to the strong and vocal support of low-income families desperate to provide a better education for their children.

For America's Opportunity Scholarship for Kids to make it through Congress, parents from across the nation will have to stand up and demand the opportunity to send their children to better schools. Especially in sub-par school districts, parents know that their children need better opportunities than what the local public schools can offer.

After all, a solid education is the foundation of future success. Test results show that too many children don't get that foundation from their public schools. In fact, the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that one out of every three fourth graders from low-income families could not read. Something needs to change.

Even under this proposal, a kindergartener at an underperforming school could have to wait as long as six years before she could hope to transfer into a quality classroom with such a voucher. But children can't afford to wait another day-let alone six years-to take a seat in a classroom where they'll actually learn.

The federal government spends more than $66 billion per year on K-12 education. Parents of students who attend failing schools could make better use of that money with greater control over their children's share of it. Toward this goal, President Bush's America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative is an important beginning.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.

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