- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

How does that saying go? "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Well, I love it the heat, that is.

I love it so much I refuse to leave the room. So this month's topic is school choice, for a couple of reasons.

For certain, school vouchers are on the front burner in the District now that Democrats and Republicans are mulling the Bush administration's school reform plan. On a more personal level, I believe education helps keep our eyes on the real prizes.

So now you know my motives; here's what I have to say. Why is everyone so down on vouchers? I find it hypocritical that people want choice in so many other areas of their lives but reject it in this one.

You shop around for auto and homeowner's insurance, and you shop around for low interest rates on car loans, mortgages and credit cards. You shop around for high yields on investments, and you shop around for a new house of worship if you move to a new city. You even shop around to get the right fit for your child and college, academically, socially and financially. If an experience at a restaurant is bad enough, that restaurant never sees you again.m Why is everyone so down on vouchers?

I find it hypocritical that people want choice in so many other areas of their lives but reject it in this one.

You go through all those motions, and more, for things that have little, if anything, to do with raising your child. Yet you reject vouchers and other aspects of school choice out of hand.

Let me tell you a thing or three about who's benefiting from school choice. There's Kevin, a teen-ager in San Antonio whose grandparents discovered, through trial and error, that Kevin did not fit in with that school system's one-size-fits-all way of doing things.

Kevin has attention deficit disorder, and public schools in San Antonio, just like public schools everywhere in America, get extra money to help children like him. But Kevin did not always get the special help, and his grades reflected this. His grandparents gave up and, with the help of vouchers, enrolled him a Christian school outside San Antonio. Kevin is learning for the first time.

In Milwaukee, you'll find Pilar, the mother of Leigha, Bianca and Andres. Her determination to find the right school for each of her children would make you feel proud.

"It's a fight to find the right school, and the right school for one [child] may not be the right school for the others," Pilar says. "So you have to go in and get every bit of information you can. We ask questions about every other decision we make in life. I mean, I'll ask how good a car is, but not a teacher?"

Pilar did not speak those choice words to me. Her family's story, Kevin's and those of other families are in the book "Trinnietta Gets a Chance: Six Families and Their School Choice Experiences." The book was written by Daniel McGroarty and published by the Heritage Foundation. This is no highfalutin book, although I know some people conjure up that image because of its connection with Heritage. The book is a compilation of real-life stories by plain-speaking, ordinary people who are trying to do the right thing, the best educational thing, on behalf of their children.

These families are different in many ways, and none is elitist or wealthy or white. While Kevin's grandparents adopted him and Pilar's children benefit from a two-parent household, Roberta Kitchen, who lives in Cleveland, is raising five children as a single mom.

I met Miss Kitchen when she was in the District recently talking to experts and ordinary people about the importance of education in general and of school choice in particular.

The Kitchen family's story is extraordinary. Miss Kitchen is a college-educated, single career woman. Her goddaughter left her home 15 years ago to "get a pack of cigarettes" and left behind three children. The goddaughter later had two more children.

Miss Kitchen is raising all five. While the children fell into a daily routine in Miss Kitchen's home, she had to shop around for the right schools for each of them, and she was able to do so because of the choice programs in Cleveland.

Relating each child's story would take far more than my allotted column inches. Suffice it to say, you shouldn't knock what you really, truly don't understand.

I know some of you out there are shaking your heads, saying, "There goes Deborah Simmons again, giving us a word-lashing." As I said, if you can't stand the heat, step aside.

Still, let me make nice because I know children don't come with a book of instructions, so trying to do what's right on their behalf often takes a lifetime of trial and error. Though we can pick up pointers from experts such as Dr. Spock, whose books can help train parents' eyes toward distinguishing chicken pox from measles, parents need more than a few pointers to tell a good school from a bad one. And, I must add, parents need more than one choice.

Deborah Simmons is an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times. She can be reached by e-mail at simmon@twtmail.com.

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