Columns

Ratledge ’11: Hey, Senator! Leave them kids alone!

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, April 9, 2009

For 1,700 poor elementary school students in Washington, D.C., the best chance for a quality education ended last week. Despite entreaties from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and even President Barack Obama himself, the Senate used the omnibus spending bill to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program by the 2009-10 school year.

Implemented by a Democratic D.C. mayor in 2004, this program allows public school students in D.C.’s most troubled schools to apply for scholarships to attend charter and private schools of their choosing. Why would Senate Democrats and teachers’ unions so vehemently oppose a plan that aims to improve education access and outcomes for the poorest students? Because for them, this is a first step towards the mortal sin of school choice.

There is no substantial data on the efficacy of this particular program, but the anecdotal evidence of success, found everywhere from the Cato Institute to the New York Times, indicates that something remarkable has taken place. Students who would otherwise face great barriers to educational success are excelling far beyond expectations. Because they are no longer trapped by their geography and socioeconomic status, they finally have the opportunity to access the type of education that many people in the United States take for granted.

Consider this: The average annual income for families of enrolled children is $22,736. Such families don’t have the option to “vote with their feet” and improve their children’s prospects by moving to an area with better schools. They don’t have the disposable income to hire private tutors or enroll their children in expensive after-school activities. What they do have is the opportunity to apply for a scholarship — yes, a school voucher — that gives the poorest children in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country an educational lifeline. Eliminating this program preserves private schools as a privilege available only for the affluent. That seems directly at odds with Democrats’ claims for more universal access to education.

I understand why many liberals are opposed to school vouchers. Their philosophy dictates that — rather than allow children to opt out of failing schools and enroll in schools that offer a comprehensive, worthwhile education — the government ought to fix the schools in question. According to them, sound public schools are the most equitable solution to education inequality.

But “fixing” public education, especially in economically depressed areas, isn’t easy; if it were, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton would have done it. Since Carter created the Department of Education, average per-pupil spending in American public schools has gone from $2,307 to $8,701. We haven’t seen a 377 percent increase in education quality. Throwing money at the problem hasn’t solved it.

School choice is no panacea. It doesn’t help attract better teachers to low-income areas. It doesn’t force parents who are disinterested in their children’s education to take an active role. Teachers will still struggle to find ways to instill a love of reading in children whose families own no books and will still fail at disciplining children who have no rules at home. Schools will still face the specter of violence on one hand and lawsuits on the other.

Allowing some students to escape the inevitability of an inferior or nonexistent education doesn’t fix the overarching problems with today’s public education system. All it does is give those children who need it most a chance to do better. But isn’t that a laudable goal?
Senate Democrats have laid their cards on the table: Ideology is more important than the future of D.C.’s poorest children. D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Duncan, people on opposite sides of the education-reform spectrum, have both expressed their dismay at the idea that low-income children flourishing under the scholarship program will soon be forced back into failing public schools, a difficult transition with detrimental consequences.

It is hard to switch schools anyway, but to be forced by the federal government to accept a lesser education because of your economic station? What message does that send to these children — you know first-hand what a good education feels like, but because you can’t afford it, you don’t deserve it anymore?

People at Brown spend a lot of time discussing how to convince more minority and low-income students to apply, but education starts earlier than that. If children can’t get a passable education from their neighborhood public school, they shouldn’t be condemned to stay there, languishing, for 12 years. When children have been given equal access to schools where they can thrive, regardless of their parents’ income level, they shouldn’t have that taken away from them to protect the sanctity of a public school ideal.

Obama has said that he plans to fight Congress to prevent the program from expiring next year. Let’s hope he does.

Alyssa Ratledge ’11 went to public school, but she can vouch for vouchers.