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FEULNER: School choice is on the march

When educators compete, students win

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These days, freedom is under fire in many ways. It's nice to be able to report that in one area, at least, freedom is marching in the right direction: education.

"Indiana's highest court ruled unanimously in Meredith v. Pence that the Choice Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income and middle-income families in the Hoosier State, is constitutional," the Heritage Foundation's Lindsey Burke reported recently. "The suit, brought by the teachers unions, sought to end the country's largest and most inclusive school-voucher program."

We can be grateful the union's lawsuit failed. Some 600,000 children across Indiana are now eligible to receive scholarships to attend a private school that meets their unique learning needs. The ruling will empower students and parents, instead of education bureaucrats. It also recognizes that while public education is a benefit to all, that doesn't have to mean that the government should run all the schools.

Competition, after all, improves education just as it improves most other things. When schools compete, parents can choose the one that's right for their child's learning needs, and that helps everyone.

Education freedom is advancing elsewhere. In Texas, lawmakers are considering a measure that would remove the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state. There are only 215 right now, but at least 100,000 students are eager to enroll in one. It's time to increase supply to meet that demand.

The Lone Star state is due for a shake-up. More than half of all public school students there are Hispanic. Yet, while 42 percent of white eighth-graders are proficient in reading, just 17 percent of their Hispanic peers can read on grade level.

School choice has already made a big difference for special-needs children in Florida, where the state has made McKay scholarships available.

"A survey of McKay Scholarship parents revealed strong rates of satisfaction with services provided in comparison to previous public schools," researcher Matthew Ladner wrote for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "The survey found that 92.7 percent of current McKay participants are satisfied or very satisfied with their McKay schools, while 32.7 percent were similarly satisfied with their public schools."

Elsewhere, Alabama is also moving to expand choice. Its program will provide income-tax credits that will allow students to escape failing schools. Donations to scholarship funds will be tax-deductible. The governor says this is "the most significant piece of legislation that's been passed in this legislature in years."

Tennessee is considering setting up a voucher program for low-income students who are stuck in underperforming schools. The program would only provide some 5,000 vouchers at first, but would expand to 20,000 over the next several years.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to limit school choice in the nation's capital. Its proposed budget provides no funding next year for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This is odd: "According to the Department of Education's scientifically rigorous evaluation of the program, the DCOSP has been a wild success," Mrs. Burke writes. "Students who received a voucher and used it to attend a private school had a 91 percent graduation rate 21 percentage points higher than their peers who did not receive a voucher."

The administration wants to spend $75 billion over the next decade supporting a new federal preschool program (even though the government's Head Start program is a proven failure), but aims to save $20 million a year by ending the voucher program. Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Freedom is threatened on many sides. Obamacare marches forward, endangering religious liberty and personal health care choices. The United States plunges year after year in the Index of Economic Freedom, with big drops in business freedom, labor freedom and monetary freedom dragging us down.

At least in education, we're seeing some positive steps. That's good news for our nation's future.

Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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