The Time for School Choice Is Coming

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Slowly but inexorably, the tide seems to be moving in the direction of equal opportunity in education for the nation's poor and minority children.

In a stunning reversal, President Clinton's liberal former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, now a college professor again, says he favors tax-funded vouchers to allow children, especially children from poorer families, a choice of schools.

A recent Gallup poll found that while the public as a whole is about evenly divided between those who favor and those who oppose vouchers for school choice, almost 70% of nonwhite parents favor vouchers - this despite the official opposition to vouchers by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Even voucher opponent and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore recently said, "If I were the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing...I might be for vouchers, too." (But he is still against them for even these children.)

It's little wonder that such a large majority of nonwhite parents favor vouchers. The worst public schools preponderantly are in poor neighborhoods, and many of those poor families are nonwhite. Families who can afford it move to better public school districts or pay to send their children to private schools if their local schools aren't taking care of children's needs.

One reason the public as a whole is about evenly split on vouchers is that people in many suburban districts aren't all that unhappy with their public schools - and they have a choice if they are. Almost certainly, another reason is that despite all the discussion among the chattering classes, 63% of the general public say they know little or nothing about vouchers. Even 60% of people in communities that have tax-funded or privately funded vouchers say they know little or nothing about them.

Meanwhile, a limited number of low-income families already have school choice. More than 50,000 children from these families have received scholarships from private programs that require the families to pay half the private school tuition. Despite this requirement, more than 1.25 million families applied for 40,000 of the scholarships offered last school year.

Some 8,000 children from low-income families in Milwaukee, another 3,400 or so in Cleveland and a handful in Pensacola, Fla., use tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools. There is a good chance that Michigan voters this November will approve a tax-funded voucher program.

The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the Milwaukee program, but the Cleveland and Florida programs are still under challenge and if the Michigan initiative succeeds, it is sure to be challenged, too.

Ultimately, the high court will accept some case and issue the definitive ruling on tax-funded vouchers. It is always risky to anticipate high court rulings, but some recent decisions have given voucher supporters hope. And it seems reasonable enough that if students could use the tax-funded GI Bill to attend theological seminaries and tax-funded Pell Grants to attend colleges with religious ties, they could use tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools - even church-operated schools.

School choice supporters are not anti-public schools, but rather are pro-children. They believe competition can help make our elementary and secondary schools the best of any nation, just as competition has helped make our colleges and universities the best of any nation.

The arguments that vouchers will take needed money away from public schools, or provide a better education for the few while leaving the many behind in bad schools are not proving to be true.

A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that in the past, more spending has not meant better student performance. The NBER found that from 1970 to 1995, average spending per pupil in the public schools rose from $3,645 to $6,434, in 1996 dollars. During the same period, SAT scores dropped from 950 to 900, reading test scores stayed relatively constant and writing scores declined.

As for the argument that school choice would allow some students to escape failing schools but leave others behind, does this mean that if there aren't enough lifeboats on a sinking ship for every passenger, the right thing to do is to let everybody drown?

Whoever wins the presidency in November must deal with the question of whether we shall continue to insist that one size must fit every school child - and that the child must make do with the public school, no matter how bad it is. That's a position that will become more and more difficult to defend.



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