- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

It's no surprise to see education become a hot campaign topic again, but something is altering the political landscape: School choice. No longer can reforms such as scholarships and vouchers be brushed aside. As Vice President Al Gore recently said, "If I were the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing … I might be for vouchers, too."
The latest poll by Phi Delta Kappa, a national education group, places parental support for school choice at an all-time high of 60 percent. The Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a think tank specializing in African-American issues, shows support for school choice among African-Americans at 60 percent, including two-thirds of Baby Boomers and more than 75 percent of blacks under 35. A national organization called the Black Alliance for Educational Options started a pro-voucher campaign this fall.
A growing cadre of left-leaning intellectuals has jumped on the school-choice bandwagon. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote in the Wall Street Journal Sept. 6 that he would consider the concept if the "voucher" amount was substantial enough. Said Mr. Reich: "The only way to begin to decouple poor kids from lousy schools is to give poor kids additional resources, along with vouchers enabling them and their parents to choose how to use them."
But the rising tide doesn't stop there. Few people noticed, but earlier this month, the Florida State 1st District Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the state's "opportunity scholarship" program, which allows children in chronically failing schools to attend a better public, private or religious school of choice. Ruling unanimously, the court noted that "nothing in [the Constitution] clearly prohibits the legislature from allowing the well-delineated use of public funds for private school education."
What's more, Florida's ruling comes on the heels of a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found federal funding of computers and other materials for students attending religious schools is constitutional. Moreover, a growing body of research bolsters the academic viability of school choice, especially for students trapped in low-performing public schools. A recent study by researchers at Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Wisconsin found that disadvantaged African-American students in Dayton, Ohio, D.C. and New York City have used their $1,700 private scholarships to outperform their public-school counterparts by an average of 7 percentile points in reading and mathematics.
The gains were particularly pronounced in cities such as Washington, where the longer students remain in the system, the more the quality of their education suffers. Even John Witte, the official evaluator of Milwaukee's school-choice program, and an initial voucher skeptic, concedes in a recent book that choice is a "useful tool to aid low-income families." Adds Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young: "If you're in an under-achieving school, then you have a right to seek a voucher to go to a school where you can be guaranteed some level of achievement."
These developments have been followed closely by voters in Michigan and California, where school-choice initiatives are on the ballot this fall. Michigan's Proposal 1 would allow approximately 300,000 students trapped in failing public schools to select the public, private or religious schools of their choice. California's Proposition 38 would offer all parents a $4,000 scholarship to choose between a public, private or religious school.
Given the historical difficulties of enacting school choice through ballot initiatives, no one expects a landslide victory in either state. But a defeat will not discourage the school-choice movement as much as it may have even a year ago, because the movement has become larger and more powerful in a relatively short time.
As the vice president noted at a recent campaign stop: "It's time to make revolutionary improvements in our public schools the No. 1 priority in the nation." Agreed. It may not sit well with the teachers' unions, but that's what school choice is all about.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a senior education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.

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