FEULNER: Making the grade

School choice raises student achievement

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More than 200 organizations across the country are staging some 3,600 events to mark School Choice Week. Many grateful parents, however, have reason to celebrate every week.

Just ask Joseph Kelley. A single father living in Washington, D.C., Mr. Kelley was shocked when his son Rashawn failed the first grade. Worse, his teachers didn’t even realize that he knew how to read. Rather than work to improve his vocabulary and get him up to grade level, D.C. Public Schools placed Rashawn in special-education classes.

Mr. Kelley knew his son was smart but wasn’t being well-served by his assigned public school. He heard about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income families in the nation’s capital to allow children to attend private schools of their parents’ choice, and he knew what it meant: a second chance for his son.

Rashawn applied and was enrolled in the program. After two years in private school, he caught back up to grade level. Today, Rashawn is attending the University of the District of Columbia. That wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t have a parent who cared and if he didn’t have school choice available to him.

It’s not hard to find the first part of the formula. There are plenty of parents who care about their children’s education. It’s the second part that is tricky. School choice remains beyond the reach of far too many other children like Rashawn — smart, but ill-served by a broken system.

The District is spending an average of nearly $11,000 per student, a record amount. Yet test scores and other measurements of academic achievement continue to lag.

Certainly, there are many good public schools nationwide, with dedicated teachers who deserve praise. Unfortunately, far too many students are languishing in bad schools. When you consider the damage these schools inflict, making it nearly impossible for students to learn and fulfill their potential, you wonder why anyone would settle for such a deplorable status quo.

Fortunately, that has been changing in recent years. Support for school choice is at an all-time high, in fact. Forty-four percent of Americans favor allowing students to choose private schools to attend at public expense. School choice favorability has jumped 10 percentage points since last year.

Today, 17 states and the District of Columbia have some form of school choice. Some states provide scholarships, or vouchers, which go directly to students to be used at a school of the family’s choice. Other states provide tax credits to individuals or corporations that contribute money toward scholarships. Some states provide both types of programs.

Offering education savings accounts — currently available only in Arizona — is a particularly innovative approach to school choice. The savings accounts allow families of special-needs children to use a portion of the dollars that would have been spent on their children in their assigned public schools for a variety of options, including private-school tuition, online education and special-education services.

The benefits are undeniable. For one thing, students in school-choice programs are more likely to finish school. Students who spent all four years of high school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the nation’s longest-running school-choice program, had a 94 percent graduation rate. Their peers who attended four years of public high school had a 75 percent graduation rate.

School-choice students also tend to do better academically. A comprehensive study by the Foundation for Educational Choice notes that nine out of 10 empirical studies using random assignment to assess vouchers found that they improve student outcomes. The 10th one found no impact.

With school choice on the march, we have good reason to believe that the status quo in education won’t remain the status quo much longer. The trend is flowing away from government control — and toward parental control.

In nearly every area of life, including iPads and insurance, Americans can decide what works best for them. Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to something as important as our children’s education?

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

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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