The Heritage Foundation

Education Notebook on Education

October 31, 2008

October 31, 2008 | Education Notebook on Education

Poor Families, Not Just the Elite, Deserve School Choice

Poor Families, Not Just the Elite, Deserve School Choice

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By Dan Lips

Sen. Barack Obama has joined a growing club of elected officials who oppose school vouchers for poor families while sending their own children to private school.

In the final presidential debate, the Illinois senator criticized Sen. John McCain's plan to award tuition scholarships to low-income families living in Washington, D.C. He was echoing the sentiment he expressed to the American Federation of Teachers this summer: "But what I do oppose is spending public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them."

But Obama did walk away from public schools when the time came to enroll his own daughters. After serving on the board of a charity that gave tens of millions to public education, Obama decided that Chicago public schools weren't good enough for his daughters. He enrolled them in the private University of Chicago lab school, where elementary school tuition costs more than $18,000 per year.

No one should begrudge the senator trying to give his children the best education and opportunities possible. Avoiding the struggling Chicago public schools was a sensible decision. Illinois reports that 34 percent of Chicago students are scoring below state standards in reading. A recent independent report estimated that the city┬╣s high-school graduation rate was 52 percent.

But Obama should recognize the urgent need to give poor children -- not just his own children -- the opportunity to attend a private school. He should sympathize with the low-income families who care just as much about their children's future, but lack a senator's salary to send their children to private school.

To get a sense of just how many parents in his own hometown are desperate for school choice, Obama should consider the experience of the Children's Scholarship Fund.

In 1998, this non-profit organization announced that it would award 2,500 private school scholarships to disadvantaged kids in the Windy City. To be eligible, students had to be from families whose annual income was below $22,000 per year. Families also had to commit to a partial co-payment: $1,000, on average. Scholarships would be awarded for a four-year period, putting participating families on the hook for $4,000 in tuition payments.

In all, 59,186 children in Chicago - 26 percent of the eligible population - entered the lottery for scholarships. This means that some of the poorest families in the community were willing to commit $236 million out of their own pockets to get their children into private schools.

Sen. Obama is just the latest in a long line of politicians who speak passionately about the need to stay committed to public schools, while abandoning those same schools when it comes to their own families. In the 1990s, President Clinton vetoed legislation that would have given poor families in D.C. scholarships for private school, even though he had sent his daughter to the elite Sidwell Friends School. Vice President Al Gore also aggressively opposed vouchers during the 2000 campaign despite having sent his own children to private schools.

A recent survey of Congress found that 37 percent of representatives and 45 percent of senators had sent at least one child to private school. (Nationally, only about 10 percent of children attend private schools.) Yet many of the same members continue to oppose providing the same options for disadvantaged children.

These elected officials often try to demonstrate their support for improving public education by pledging to spend more tax dollars on more programs aimed at fixing schools. But these promises should be of little comfort to families who have no choice but to enroll their children in bad public schools today. Furthermore, years of rising school budgets have yielded little improvement in the nation's worst school districts.

After all, in Washington, D.C., the government spends $13,000 per student, yet half of its eighth grade students failed a national reading test. As Sen. McCain has proposed, disadvantaged children living in the District should be given the power to use their share of school funding to attend a safer and more effective school of their parents' choice.

Sen. Obama and many of his colleagues understand how important school choice is, at least when it comes to their own children. Do disadvantaged children deserve less?

Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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