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National | Education

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

3A challenge to mediocrity

THIS FALL, THE FIRST FEDERALLY funded voucher program in the nation will provide vouchers of around $7,500 to some 1,700 low-income students in the District of Columbia.

The enacted plan calls for a private evaluation of the program, but participating private schools will not have to change their testing policy, as some Senate Democrats had sought. Meanwhile, the legislation includes a provision that protects religious schools' right to hire according to their convictions. Currently, only about one in 10 D.C. students is proficient in reading or math, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

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"To challenge mediocrity ... parents have to be given more options," President Bush told an audience gathered last month at Washington D.C.'s Archbishop Carroll High School to celebrate the $13 million program. Parental-choice advocate Virginia Walden Ford joined President Bush onstage. Mrs. Ford's son, William, attended Archbishop Carroll with a private scholarship years before publicly funded vouchers came within reach: "That beginning gave me the opportunity to have a really good, happy ending for my family."

High hopes

Where were you my freshman year?" regretful teens ask Rashida Jolley of Washington, D.C., when she speaks on abstinence. James Waplehorst of Norfolk, Neb., hears the same thing. "I wish I would have made that choice," a college peer told him after hearing Mr. Waplehorst talk about his decision in junior high to remain sexually abstinent until marriage.

But "safe sex" is nearly all most teens hear about today, abstinence leaders told a Capitol Hill audience last month. Miss Jolley, Mr. Waplehorst, and other young leaders are trying to counter the expectation that "kids are just going to do it." President Bush called for a doubling of federal abstinence-education funding, to more than $270 million. The initiative includes a review of all federal programs related to youth and sexuality for consistency with the abstinence message. Meanwhile, a public education campaign is planned to help parents communicate to adolescents the risks of early sexual activity.

For the abstinence leaders gathered on Capitol Hill, it was about communicating a message of hope-even for those who have made a wrong choice in the past. "No one tells the drug addict they can't come clean," Miss Jolley reminds her audience. "In the same sense, even if you have had sex, you can come clean."

On March 9, more than 3,000 parents gathered at the Florida Capitol in support of the state's tax-credit program-the largest school-choice rally in the nation to date. Florida law grants tax credits to corporations contributing to scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. Some 11,500 students currently attend private schools through the tax-credit program. Meanwhile, 13,300 learning-disabled students take advantage of Florida's McKay Scholarship program, while 635 students have transferred to private schools using opportunity scholarships, awarded to them after their public schools were listed as persistently underperforming.

Legislation to strengthen charter schools is on its way to Gov. Mark Warner (D-Va.) after clearing the Virginia Senate on March 9. The Charter School Excellence and Accountability Act would remove barriers to launching and operating charter schools. While 3,000 charter schools have been launched nationwide in the last decade, only eight of those are in Virginia. Gov. Warner has indicated he will sign the bill.

The U.S. Department of Education announced on March 3 that it is seeking comments on a proposal to allow more flexibility for single-sex classes and schools. Under the new rules, schools would no longer have to argue that single-sex options are remedying past discrimination, nor would they be required to ensure that students of both sexes are receiving the same opportunities in a single-sex setting-co-ed options would suffice.

Jennifer Marshall
Jennifer Marshall

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