- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

The Senate recently opened the door to educational opportunity for students who need it most. By giving parents in the District of Columbia the power to make education choices for their children, lawmakers have created a program that will raise student achievement and drive higher standards and performance in public schools. I applaud the tenacity of voucher proponents, who kept the debate active over the last decade, as well as the local leadership,especiallyMayorTony Williams, for lending critical support to the effort to add choice to the public school system.

Voucher programs are based on the premise that parents can and should be allowed to choose the right educational setting for their children. It is inherently unfair to keep a student in a chronically failing school. Private alternatives have always been available to parents who demanded more for their children and could afford to buy it. Vouchers extend that opportunity to parents with fewer resources, ensuring that the quality of their child’s education isn’t limited by family income.

While the federal pilot program provides choice to at least 1,700 families, the positive impact on the District’s school system will be far broader. A 2003 ManhattanInstitutestudyof Florida’s voucher programs specifically focused on the impact of the vouchers on public schools. Their study revealed that public schools facing the threat of vouchers show extraordinary performance gains year-over-year compared to other schoolsinthesystem. Schools already facing competitionfromvouchers showed the greatest improvements, followed by schools facing the immediate threat of vouchers.

The published study concluded that, contrary to opinions voiced by opponents, voucher programs are actually improving the quality of education in Florida’s public schools. Researchers noted that the quality of public schools improves in direct proportion to the challengetheyfacefrom vouchers. Their conclusions validate the real-world results we’ve seen across Florida and hint at the potential for D.C. schools.

Soon, we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. That landmark case ultimately resulted in the guarantee of equal access to education in this country. Half a century later, the disparities in our schools and achievement gap among racial groups indicate that we have yet to fulfill that promise. School choice through voucher programs may provide the best hope we have of fully honoring that commitment.

We have seen the influence of education reforms that include school vouchers in Florida.Student achievementisrising across the state regardless of ethnicity, income level or zip code. State testing reflects student achievement building momentum every year and national results indicate our students are making learning gains two to four times larger than their national peers. Vouchers have not been the entire answer, but they have been a key element in the improvement we’ve achieved.

Our results, coupled with emerging evidence from other states that have added voucher programs, make the value of vouchers to parents, students and schools clear. Almost a decade after Congress first considered vouchers for the District of Columbia, the debate is no longer theoretical. It is now a contest between proven, measurable results and political rhetoric.

The program outlined for D.C. families is an important step in pushing performance into public schools and education choice into the hands of parents. Vouchers will never replace public schools as the primary source of education in this country. However, since even the best public school will not be the best option for every child, school choice can and should be an important part of the education system.

Voucher programs give parents a choice and students a chance. People on both sides of the issue should support the five-year pilot program as an opportunity to evaluate the impact and value of school choice. If Florida’s experience is any indication, the results will be hard to challenge.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a Republican.

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