- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

Nikia Hammond is a singlemother, working hard to provide for her four elementary-school children. She’s also on the front lines of a national debate about education reform.

Miss Hammond’s children — Zackia, 10; Asia, 8; Ronald, 7; and London, 5 — attended Merritt Elementary School in Northeast Washington last year, where, according to their mother, they weren’t being challenged.

That all changed last summer when Miss Hammond’s fourchildrenwere awarded Opportunity Scholarships under the new federally funded school voucher program for D.C.t students. “It was really unbelievable,” she recalled. “I was really surprised that I was able to get all these scholarships.” Miss Hammond’s four children are now enrolled at the nearby Nannie Helen Burroughs Elementary, a private school where she’s confident her children will receive a first-rate education. “I want my children to learn things I’m not able to teach them,” Miss Hammond explained. “Everything that I didn’t have, I want for them. If you don’t have education, then you don’t have anything.”

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is helping 1,005 children attend private school in the nation’s capital. The program, which is funded by Congress, costs approximately $13 million per year. It was designed to provide new opportunities for children in the D.C. school system, which according to national tests ranks near the bottom in national examinations.

Unfortunately, parents in Baltimore have few such options, despite the city school system’s persistent crisis. Academically, Baltimore’s public-education system fails on a number of measures. The city’s high-school graduation rate is barely above 50 percent and students continually lag behind state averages on the Maryland State Assessment reading and math exams. In many cases, the city’s schools are dangerous places for students. In 2004, 16 Baltimore schools were placed on probation under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The consequences of this poor education aren’t a matter for debate since they are apparent in the generations that have already passed through the city’s substandard public-education system. According to Baltimore Reads, more than one in three adults in the city is illiterate. The Census Bureau reports that Baltimore workforce participation is among the lowest in the nation. In 2000, only one in two Baltimore residents had a job. As a result, 30 percent of Baltimore public-school students live in poverty.

In 1996, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a Democrat, called on city leaders to create new schooling options: “It’s time to give all Baltimore parents the option to pull their children out of poorly run schools and place them in schools where they believe their children will get a better education.” Mr. Schmoke gathered the Mayor’s Task Force on School Choice to study whether Baltimore should implement student-centered education reforms, including options such as widespread choice among public schools or vouchers for private schools. No action was ever taken.

A child who enrolled in first grade in 1996 would today be a freshman in high school. Over the past eight years, an estimated 56,000 children would have passed through the Baltimore City school system. It’s likely 23,000 of them dropped out before graduation.

Fortunately, some lucky children have been able to benefit from school choice. The Children Scholarship Fund of Baltimore, a private organization that funds school-choice scholarships, is funding tuition scholarships for 495 students from low-income families to attend 94 different private schools this year. Still, the scholarship organiztion in Baltimore currently has more than 2,000 children on a waiting list for scholarships.

How much longer must these children have to wait? It’s time city and state leaders work to deliver real school choice for Baltimore.

We can’t afford to lose another generation of children.

Dan Lips is senior fellow of Education Policy Studies with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and author of institute’s recent school-voucher proposal for Baltimore.

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