- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

Roberta Kitchen did not plan on having five children this way. She was a single career woman with a college education. But when her goddaughter left her children at her home and one night never came back, Miss Kitchen wasn't going to let anyone else abandon them including Cleveland's education system. Lack of supplies, violent gangs, and frequent changes in assignments to different schools were a few of the problems her new "children" faced. She knew they needed to find a way out.

It was about another six years before she met Daniel McGroarty and agreed to let readers learn from her story. It is there, in the moment when parents, grandparents, or foster parents realize that their children's schools have abandoned them that his book, "Trinnietta Gets a Chance: Six Families and Their School Choice Experience" opens the families' stories. As a top speech writer for former President Bush, Mr. McGroarty could have easily let his prose set the tone of the book. Fortunately, he does not. Its greatest asset is that he lets the parents speak for themselves, in their own words, with only the burden of a parent's concern to bias them.

Unlike other authors on school choice, Mr. McGroarty does not call publicly-funded vouchers the cure-all for at-risk children. In fact, he doesn't even believe that private schools are. The greatest force behind the voucher movement, he argues, is its ability to give low-income parents the choices they have been told they cannot make because of the color of their skin or their income.

Only 32 percent of students graduate from Cleveland Public Schools, where Mr. McGroarty was educated and his father worked for 33 years. While unions rally to stop public school students from leaving the system in search of better schools, those schools are not improving.

So it was no wonder that Miss Kitchen's oldest daughter, Tiffany, could hardly read. She tested at around a third grade level when she was in sixth grade. Miss Kitchen couldn't afford summer school, so she asked the teacher to hold Tiffany back. "She said she had already used up the quota of failed students," Miss Kitchen told editors and reporters at The Washington Times at a meeting that also included Mr. McGroarty. "I knew that I could not lose my kids to the public school," she said.

That started the process to get her children into private school, despite the fact that she didn't have the resources to put them all through. Though private schools weren't a miracle solution, they helped provide a place where her children could learn Christian values and the discipline they weren't getting in public schools. The Cleveland Scholarship Program, which provided vouchers for two of her children, helped her make ends meet. Now, a federal court ruling last week struck down the program and put the educational future of Cleveland students in question halfway through the school year. Communities, rather than programs can come to the rescue at such times.

Another mother, Johnietta McGrady, whose daughter Trinnietta has become a poster child for the school choice movement, was honest about the downsides of the voucher program. Because the Cleveland Scholarship Program gives priority to voucher students whose guardians' incomes are under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, a slightly better job would put her children's education at risk. The average Cleveland family using the program makes $18,750 a year, but a family of four can make up to $30,433 to make the cut.

So Mrs. McGrady feels stuck in her professional life. What is a mother to do? Mrs. Butts, who is finally working in a job she enjoys, is considering turning down a raise to keep her children eligible for the Milwaukee voucher program.

The three voucher programs cited Cleveland, Milwaukee and San Antonio are only between four and 10 years old, so there is still room for improvement. With more than 14,000 children using the cities' programs, their needs are as diverse as the schools they attend. Sometimes private schools have helped them, sometimes they have not. Sometimes children only need a voucher to attend a school more suited to their needs for a limited amount of time, and sometimes for their entire schooling. What's important, Mr. McGroarty argues, is that the parents are given the choice to make the decision for the children they know better than any union or school administrator.

Throughout the debate over publicly funded school vouchers, it is the voices of the parents and students themselves which have been forgotten. As Brother Bob Smith, a Catholic school president, points out in the foreword to the book, it is only when politicians, unions and interest groups stop demonstrating long enough to listen that they will best be able to serve the students which failing schools have shoved aside. Mr. McGroarty should be commended for leading the way.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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