Edwin J. Feulner / Mar. 31, 2011

School Choice: A Real Test Awaits

Imagine you could buy a car at only one dealership. Shop for clothes at only one outlet. Buy food at only one grocery store. What kind of service would you expect?

Mediocre at best. Which isn’t surprising. We all know competition promotes quality. When you can shop wherever you please, merchants know the only way to woo your business is to offer a superior product.

So if the rule applies to cars, clothes and food – and hundreds of other things – why shouldn’t it apply to our children’s education?

Imagine you could buy a car at only one dealership. Shop for clothes at only one outlet. Buy food at only one grocery store. What kind of service would you expect?

Mediocre at best. Which isn’t surprising. We all know competition promotes quality. When you can shop wherever you please, merchants know the only way to woo your business is to offer a superior product.

So if the rule applies to cars, clothes and food – and hundreds of other things – why shouldn’t it apply to our children’s education?

School choice promotes quality education through competition. Yet it’s the exception, not the norm. We tolerate a situation where nearly all but the most well-to-do parents must settle for the nearest public school, regardless of quality.

Yes, many districts have fine schools, filled with caring teachers and dedicated principals. Be grateful if you have such a school in your neighborhood. Because many others, especially in low-income, urban areas, can’t make that boast.

Regardless, we have to ask: Why does it have to be this way? Why should a quality education for students who come from families of modest and low-income means be a matter of chance? The luck of the draw?

That’s why it’s always encouraging to see efforts to promote school choice – to enable parents to select the school that’s right for their children. One stellar example can be found here in the nation’s capital: the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Founded in 2004, DCOSP was the first federally funded school voucher program. It provided low-income children with scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to defray the cost of tuition and other fees at area private schools.

You may notice that I’m speaking of the program in the past tense. That’s because President Obama, moving to appease his supporters in the National Education Association, took steps to end the DCOSP shortly after taking office. Never mind its popularity among families. Forget the fact that the students awarded the scholarships had a 91 percent graduation rate, versus a 70 percent graduation rate among those who didn’t have access to them.

Its appeal cuts across the usual liberal/conservative line. The DCOSP can count The Washington Post, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and three former D.C. mayors – Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty and Marion Barry – among its supporters.

But despite its success and bi-partisan support, the Obama administration stood by as the last Congress moved to phase-out the DCOSP, dimming the hopes of the 1,100 children it served. The attitude boiled down to: You have a school down the street. Sure, it may be plagued by violence, drugs and uncaring teachers. It may even be structurally unsound. But hey, that’s life, right?

Not necessarily. There’s an effort underway in Congress to restore the program’s funding. House Speaker John Boehner is sponsoring the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, designed to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. It has already passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and soon will be up for a full floor vote.

Committee members heard from numerous parents and students testifying in its favor. “This program has worked, is still working, and will continue to work,” said Ronald Holassie, a high-school senior with an OSP scholarship. “Now being a young adult, taking on my own responsibilities, I have certainly been greatly influenced by this program. I can look back and credit this program for my success.”

That’s really what school choice is about – giving kids a chance to learn in a safe environment with good teachers, so they can go on to achieve that success. Some day, people will “look back” on how today’s politicians responded to this crisis. What grade will they deserve?

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