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CHAVOUS: Closing the achievement gap in education

Give families school choice

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Recently, the Equity and Excellence Commission -- a commission of the Department of Education -- released recommendations on how to close the persistent achievement gap that exists among 22 percent of children attending substandard schools and living in poverty. Although it’s a product of 27 first-rate minds, the report is remarkable for what it doesn’t address.

Two things jump out: The report focuses on laying out a long-term roadmap for closing the inequity gap, and there is seemingly no effort made to identify immediate steps that can be taken to rescue children currently trapped in underperforming or failing schools. Parental choice is mentioned briefly, but only in the context of recognizing the existence of inter-district choice and charter schools. The proven and successful concept of publicly funded private school choice, with 32 programs in 16 states and the District of Columbia, is completely ignored.

No report on education and equity should exclude parental choice because, unlike most of the well-intentioned education reforms proposed and tried over the past 30 years, parental choice creates parity in education virtually instantaneously. It is the great equalizer.

Research shows that students trapped in poor-performing public schools, or who are poor performers themselves, show improvement when they are given the opportunity to participate in publicly funded private school choice programs. Moreover, their parents, based on surveys in multiple states, are overwhelmingly satisfied with their choice.

Dr. Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the nation’s leading expert in the study of these programs, analyzed the results of 10 “gold standard” studies examining the impact of private school choice programs on students. Nine out of 10 concluded that some or all participating students saw improvements in academic achievement by using a voucher to attend a private school.

The results are so encouraging that during the 2011-2012 state legislative sessions, more than 40 states introduced legislation to enact publicly funded private school choice programs, and 35 legislative chambers in 19 states passed a bill.

Importantly, educational choice programs are moving forward with bipartisan support. Many of the programs enacted or strengthened over the past five years have had strong Democratic support. Why? Because the programs work and they help children most in need.

Despite the evidence that educational choice is empowering families to overcome systemic inequity that exists in public education, opponents have long argued that it should be rejected as a viable reform because it allegedly drains funds from public schools. Politicians should be focused on improving public education for the majority, the argument goes, rather than focusing on the few who need help now.

Besides the obvious moral imperative that we should be committed to helping every child access a quality education, studies have also consistently demonstrated that educational choice has had positive effects on achievement in traditional public schools. It applies needed pressure on bureaucracies that are unwilling to change, and in cases where the system is simply unable to change, it provides an escape hatch for children from low-income families who would otherwise remain trapped.

The best way to educate a child trapped in a bad school is to allow them to go to a school that will work for them – right now.

To a hammer, everything may look like a nail. But the challenge in bringing equity to education isn’t about widgets, it’s about children – children who will enter adulthood facing virtually insurmountable odds that come with a lack of education.

We should have the determination to continue pressing for long-term reform initiatives that help create educational equity. Yet we must also recognize the inherent unfairness that comes with asking another generation of children to sacrifice their future in order to protect the system. 

Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, is a former D.C. Councilman and chairman of the Council’s Education Committee.

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