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The Conservative Curmudgeon
September 14, 2012

Freedom of Choice in Education Should Be
a Key Issue in the Presidential Campaign

by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — American public education is clearly in decline. A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only one-third of American students demonstrated proficiency in science and technology, and only 3 percent of students are classified as “advanced.”

An independent task force launched by the Council on Foreign Relations warns that the U.S. educational system is heading toward a “national security crisis.” The chairs of the report — former New York City school system chancellor Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — say that education failures threaten our economic growth and competitiveness, as well as our physical safety.

According to the not-for-profit testing organization ACT, only 22 percent of U.S. high school students met “college-ready” standards in all of their core subjects. The figures are even lower for Hispanics and African-Americans. The College Board reported that even among the narrower cohort of college-bound seniors, more than 50 percent of college-bound students need to take remedial classes in one or more subjects.

Economist Veronique de Rugy explains that a lack of accountability in our educational system has led to stagnant scores and complacency, despite the fact that we are second in the world in per-pupil spending. She explained, “We have tried spending more money and putting more teachers in classrooms for more than a generation, with no observable improvements to anything except the schools’ bottom lines.”

Since the monopoly that public schools now hold for all but the affluent has proven inadequate to the needs of a 21st-century, high-tech society, what we desperately need is competition in the area of education — and free choice for all parents with respect to where they send their children to school.

The District of Columbia Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. has administered a program through which more than 1,700 Washington, D.C., students will get the chance to attend a private school this year through a federal voucher program. Congress established the program in 2004, a first-of-its-kind program for the city’s parents who want to send their children to Catholic schools or other private facilities instead of the struggling public schools.

President Obama had not included any funding for the scholarship program in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal, part of a trend by his administration since 2009 to phase out the program. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind.-CT) — two supporters of vouchers — announced in June that they had struck an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to carry out the program with no specific cap on enrollment, so both new and existing enrollees can apply to the program.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to expand Washington, D.C.’s, school voucher program as part of a nationwide push for school choice. He declared: “Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of children are getting a third-world education. And America's minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time.”

As president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government’s largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucher-like system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose — public, charter, online, or private — a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains. “I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” declared Romney, adding that families’ freedom to vote with their feet “will hold schools responsible for results.”

The Obama administration has reluctantly permitted some approaches to education that Republicans have long supported, including charter schools and teacher evaluations tied to student results. “There’s not much left for Republicans to be distinctive about,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group. “The one line the Obama folks have refused to cross is the voucher line” — that is, allowing students to use taxpayer money to attend any certified school, public or private.

One recent study of a Florida program offering private school vouchers to low-income families found that test scores at public schools facing competition went up. A Gallup survey found that 61 percent of Americans were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the state of public education. Hispanics in particular ranked access to education as a critical issue, even above immigration. School choice clearly benefits students with low income and high potential.

Diana Furchtgott-Rothof of the Manhattan Institute points out, “Teachers’ unions have consistently used their power to protect poorly performing teachers and schools, to the detriment of children. They’re against merit pay, they make it difficult to fire incompetent teachers, and they’re against allowing parents to choose the best schools for their children. By sending their kids to Sidwell (Sidwell Friends School, a private school in Washington, D.C.), the president hasn’t allowed teachers unions to control his educational choices. He should not be stopping other parents from having the same opportunity.”

In a recent Gallup poll, only 29 percent — an all-time low — of Americans express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools. In a poll conducted last year in New Jersey by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, 54 percent of African-Americans expressed support for school vouchers. Hopefully, this presidential campaign will focus attention on the need for serious educational reform, an essential element of which is a voucher system.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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