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A parent's right to choose

National | Educational choice gains momentum with the public and puts heat on schools to shape up or shut down

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

The confrontation is spreading. According to a Heritage Foundation report on school choice released earlier this year, children in all 50 states now benefit from private scholarships like those funded by CEO Kids First America and the Children's Scholarship Fund. A $500 tax credit for Arizona private-school families passed judicial muster. Free-market principles are proving effective both in providing options for kids trapped in failing public schools-and in improving public schools that are failing. And more than 250,000 students now attend charter schools, a type of public/private hybrid with decided limitations but still an improvement over the previous no-choice regimes.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-

winning economist and a blocking fullback for the school-choice movement, hopes that this momentum will propel school-choice initiatives-including November voucher initiatives in Michigan and California-to victory. "What I'm really counting on is the public's awareness of the deficiencies of the public schools," Mr. Friedman told WORLD.

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The public is making its awareness known. For example, Hunter College polled 1,257 New York City residents in August. Two-thirds of respondents believe that most public schools "are not safe places." Half rated public schools "fair" or "poor." And three-quarters of residents who were familiar with school vouchers supported sending their child to "the school of their choice." In Baltimore last year, a stunning 44 percent of eligible residents applied for Children's Scholarship Fund vouchers in order to send their kids to private schools, as did a third in Washington, D.C. One Detroit News poll showed that 53 percent of voters support Kid's First! Yes!, this year's Michigan voucher initiative; 24 percent are undecided, and only 23 percent are opposed.

The voice of the people contrasts sharply with that of teachers unions and entrenched educrats. For example, Hunter College pollsters were surprised at the pro-voucher response among citizens in majority Democratic New York. And though the National Education Association (NEA) concedes that school choice "has gained political momentum," its war against school choice goes on. But the voucher proposals slated for Michigan and California ballots have been carefully crafted to counter the usual campaign slogans of anti-choice opponents. For example, each guarantees funding levels for public schools, thus exploding the myth that voucher supporters are out to destroy public schools.

In 1993, the California Teachers Association, assisted by the NEA, clubbed a California voucher initiative into the ground, outspending the "yes" campaign by more than 4 to 1. But this time around, Golden State voucher backers have deep pockets, too. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper has pledged $20 million to support Proposition 38 and is working to raise another $20 million in outside support, according to Mr. Friedman. That's a hefty sum, even when measured against seemingly bottomless teachers union warchests. Should Proposition 38 prevail in bellwether California, vouchers could become a permanent part of the national educational landscape.

Charter schools, still under government control, do not offer the opportunity to teach a Christian worldview, but their stress on meeting specific student achievement goals and their exemption from much of the bureaucratic red tape that ensnares state-run public schools are definite pluses. Unlike public schools, charter schools that fail to educate kids are shut down. Growing parental demand for charter schools has made them diverse, according to the Heritage Foundation report. For example, Michigan has charter schools for pregnant teenagers, Hispanic students at risk of dropping out, and young people with learning disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 400 new charter schools opened across the country in 1999, bringing to nearly 1,500 the total number of such institutions operating nationwide.

Studies show satisfaction high among charter-school parents. In Massachusetts, for example, 60 percent of such parents surveyed by the Pioneer Institute gave their children's schools an A, while only 37 percent of public schools rated an A with surveyed parents. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said their children were performing better academically in charter schools than they had in public schools.

School-choice advocates have maintained that competition will help public schools; Florida last year provided some evidence of that. By the end of the first year of Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ Education Plan voucher program, 76 of the state's 78 failing public schools had raised standardized test scores so much that their students are no longer eligible for vouchers. (The other two schools closed.) While some Florida public-school administrators admitted "teaching the test," others reported real reform. In Marion County, schools reported instituting changes such as smaller class sizes and intensive teacher training in reading, writing, and math. When officials tallied statewide testing results for 1999-2000, only four Florida public schools received the scarlet F. None was among the original 78. Patrick J. Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice, said: "The central argument against school choice-that it will destroy the public schools-has been debunked once and for all."

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