Is the School Choice Tide Turning?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Thanks to a combination of tax-funded and privately funded vouchers, a growing number of children - most of them racial minorities and most of them from low-income families - will have an opportunity this coming school year to escape schools where they can't learn such basics as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Their ranks are still small - just over 50,000 who had an opportunity to choose a private school out of a school-age population of more than 50 million. Only about 13,000 of those receive the tax-funded vouchers, and whether that number grows or shrinks depends on a U.S. Supreme Court decision widely expected sometime in the next year on whether it's constitutional for children to use tax-funded vouchers to attend religious schools.

Another avenue of school choice, the charter school - a public school freed from the education bureaucracy to try independent, innovative approaches - attracted an estimated 350,000 children last year. But although charter schools are a forward step in improving elementary and secondary education in the United States, they cannot by themselves break the stranglehold of the education monopoly on the nation's schools. Vouchers are a necessary tool for competition and true school choice

The public education establishment still controls 92 cents of every dollar spent on elementary and secondary education in America, and the establishment - notably the teachers unions - vehemently opposes school choice. The millions of dollars that philanthropies and businesses have contributed to fund private scholarships still amount to only a drop in the bucket of total education spending. Obviously then, until individual families have a say on some of that 92 cents, their choices are going to be as limited as their means.

That's why the Supreme Court decision, whenever it comes and from wherever it comes (probably a challenge to the Cleveland program), will have an impact far beyond Milwaukee, Cleveland and Pensacola, Fla., the only places where children used tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools last year.

School choice has an impact far greater than just getting kids out of bad schools. The public schools respond just the way businesses respond: they try to improve. (The public school establishment and its allies also turn to government and the courts to try to maintain their monopoly.)

For a good example of what happens, take the new Florida law (under court challenge) that allows children to transfer to a private school with a state-funded scholarship or to another public school if their school gets an "F" on a state report card two years in a row. Last school year, 138 children left two Pensacola elementary schools that failed, 53 going to private schools and 85 to better public schools. Prodded by the potential loss of students, only four Florida schools received "F" grades in 1999-2000 - and none of the 78 schools graded "F" in 1998-99 were among those four.

Carol Innerst, a retired education writer who studied the effect of the new Florida law, found that in Escambia County, where the Pensacola district is located, the public school system expanded teaching staffs and the school year, began tutoring programs in the afternoons and on Saturdays and required parent-teacher conferences for each grading period, among other improvements.

Nor were the improvements limited to Escambia County. All the districts with "F" or "D" schools launched massive efforts to retrain teachers in reading methods such as direct instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. In Miami-Dade County, $11 million in federal funds was shifted to low-performing schools to increase math and reading instruction, and 210 new teachers were hired for the 26 worst schools. Broward and Hillsborough counties reduced class sizes in low-performing schools. And so on. Exactly the kinds of things you'd do to meet competition in a business.

Nor is the Florida experience unique. In Milwaukee, which had the first tax-funded voucher program, the public school board closed six schools identified as failing, guaranteed to teach a child to read by the second grade or provide a tutor - and opened some charter schools. The same sort of thing has happened in school districts affected by the privately funded vouchers.

One can never predict how the Supreme Court will rule, but if it was constitutional for veterans to use the GI Bill to attend theological seminaries (and it was), that would seem to portend well for a decision that children can use tax-funded vouchers to attend any school, private, public, or religious.



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