Virtual Voices

Champion of choice in education

Education

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has personally intervened to help rescue Washington, D.C.'s schoolchildren and their parents from the neglect of President Obama and the liberal Democrats in Congress. The speaker has introduced the SOAR (Scholarships for Opportunity and Results) Act, H.R. 471, which would reinstate Washington's highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

When this came up for debate last year, the union bosses representing teachers demanded an end to parental choice, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Obama administration, and the liberal majority that made up the 111th Congress were only too willing to oblige.

It is rare for a speaker of the House to sponsor legislation, but this shows how deeply committed Boehner is to educational choice for the District of Columbia's parents and students.

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The district's school system would rank 51st in the nation if D.C. were a state. Forty-five percent of the district's high school students drop out. Eighty-six percent of the district's eighth graders read below their grade level. By contrast, 91 percent of the students who received D.C. Opportunity Scholarships graduated from high school.

Of course, President Obama knows how successful private schools are. He had a scholarship to attend the exclusive Punahao School in Hawaii. His daughters attend the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington. In the liberal 111th Congress, 40 percent of its members sent their kids to private schools.

To be fair, not all liberals oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The Washington Post editorialized in favor of it. Journalist and author Juan Williams has been a steadfast friend of parental choice in education. And former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had kind words for the program (which is doubtless why she's now a former schools chief).

Whether these good folks would be as charitable toward parental choice in education if the vast majority of American parents were able to choose their children's schools is another matter. I am not cynical, but I cannot help observing that by supporting the relatively small (3,000 students/ $13 million) program, these sincere liberals may be operating on the "escape valve" principle: They may understand that they cannot resist all pressures to reform the perpetually failing schools in the district.

How will parents know which schools to choose for their kids? That was the counter-argument of the late, powerful Al Shanker, the long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker bluntly said parents lacked the capacity to make such choices for their own children, which echoed the thoughts of all his fellow union bosses. But if parents are incapable of choosing their own children's schools, we might ask, how can they choose our presidents? After all, we give our presidents access to nuclear weapons!

Further, if parents are so ill-equipped in this area, who rendered them incapable to make this decision? Fully 89 percent of parents go through our government schools. In making the "parents are too dumb" case, the union bosses are really grading themselves-and giving themselves a failing mark.

We need a better definition of public education. We need a public education that serves the public interest. It's worth noting that the major liberal leaders of our past and present-Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama-have spent all or part of their education in non-government schools.

President Obama has tried to change the subject. He wants to offer a new, expensive federal education program he calls "Race to the Top." It will fail, and not just because it's Obama's. George W. Bush's federal education initiative-No Child Left Behind-also failed. So did the much-touted Goals 2000 and America 2000 programs of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Even Ronald Reagan's more modest federal initiative failed. He simply wanted to recoup just one-half of the decline in SAT scores American students had suffered in the 15-year period from 1965 to 1980.

Why did all these federal education initiatives fail? Hint: Note the word "federal." You can check the text of the Federalist Papers and you'll find nothing about education. You can consult the Preamble of the Constitution-in fact, the entire body of the Constitution-and you'll find nothing about education. That's why, with the single exception of ending school segregation, the federal government has no proper constitutional role in our local schools.

The reason why D.C. Opportunity Scholarships have been successful is because they enable parents who see education as the ladder of achievement to choose the best schools for their own children. Speaker John Boehner understands this, which is why he deserves our thanks and our support.

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