Monday, February 19, 2001

Imagine a telephone call from your preschooler’s teacher saying your child was found on the playground trying to inflate a used condom she’d mistaken for a party balloon. For the parents of three Washington children, this gross reality struck late last month.

But it could have been even worse. According to The Washington Post, beer cans, spent hypodermic syringes, and broken glass often litter the District’s playgrounds and schoolyards.

As bad as this incident was, the school’s feeble response was even more disturbing. Principal Jennifer Smith said, “There’s no telling who’s going to be on the playground or what kind of activities will occur there, and that goes for every public school in the District. We’re sorry about the unfortunate circumstances about the children touching what they found, but we’re told that it isn’t the first time that kind of thing has happened.” Nor the last time, most likely, and not just in the nation’s capital.

According to a new Department of Education report, roughly one student in 10 nationwide is victimized on school property. One Baltimore public school principal candidly admits, “I’m sure there are streets in Baltimore you won’t walk down; I ask my students not to go into Stairwells 5 and 6 for the same reason. It’s about personal safety.”

How can this situation continue? Why are these schools still even open? The answer is obvious. The government assigns children to schools and forces parents to pay for it, whether the parents like it or not. For many families, the only way out private school is simply too expensive. Some communities don’t even have private schools they are priced out by competition from “free” public schools.

A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 54 percent of parents would send their child to a private school if they could afford it. School choice plans tax credits, scholarship funds, savings accounts can make that possible. Those plans put money in parents’ pockets to shop for better schools. And as they say, money talks schools will have no choice but to listen.

If violence prevails in the hallways, parents could withdraw their children and send them to a safer school. If a child isn’t learning enough, parents can find better teachers. If the playground is littered with vile trash, parents can choose a healthier environment. Granted choice, parents will hold schools accountable.

Critics charge that we shouldn’t “abandon” our public school system. But it’s not the system we should be trying to save. It’s the children. Every child deserves a shot at a good education right now not tomorrow, not in five years and not after another generation is lost in the name of protecting the system.

It’s time for action, not assurances. If President Bush wants to deliver on his promise to leave no child behind, where better to start than in the nation’s capital the model of a failing system. By encouraging Congress to create school choice in its own back yard, the new administration can set in motion a model education reform for the nation one based on parents’ decisions, not politician’s promises. The ripple effects of a D.C. demonstration project would embolden governors and state legislators to follow the president’s lead and enact school choice policies in their own states.

Mr. Bush has a golden opportunity to make good on his promises. The children are waiting.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy and Dan Lips is education research assistant at the Cato Institute.

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