- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

What's wrong with this picture? Teachers at Pacific Palisades Charter High School in Los Angeles face disciplinary action for implementing a zero-tolerance policy that allows them to flunk a student after six unexcused absences. Or how about this one? In the midst of a huge deficit because of overspending on special education, D.C. officials are hesitant to establish charter schools solely for special-education students. Then, there is the battle before the U.S. Supreme Court on school vouchers. Get the picture now?

Indeed, the very fact that the highest court in the land is considering the Ohio voucher program has the one-size-fits-all proponents of public schooling shaking in their boots and rightly so. The teachers' unions, the Teamsters and other unions feel threatened because a favorable ruling by the court will likely mean fewer dollars in their coffers and, more importantly, less political clout on the federal, state and local levels.

On the upside, though, a favorable ruling would underscore parents' clamoring for not merely more choice, but a quality education for their children which, after all, is the point of school reform.

Consider the mess at Pacific Palisades charter school. Some parents try hard to sniff out their teens' tendencies to cut class, often understanding their rite of passage to feign sickness and skip school. And, Lord knows, there is barely a public high school in a major urban area that isn't plagued by absenteeism. So, Pacific Palisades began instituting a sensible policy: If a student is habitually absent unless, of course, he has a chronic illness then his teacher gives him an F.

But, oh no, said the Los Angeles Unified School District. The teachers can't do that, because that standard is not listed in Pacific Palisades' charter. So, even students who routinely and deliberately miss class must be allowed to make up the academic consequences regardless of unexcused absences. That means teachers have been ordered to reverse the grades for undeserving students. Beyond being blatantly unfair to students who regularly attend class, the school system's ruling undermines one of the most profound aspects of charter schools the absence of bureaucratic red tape that practically strangles traditional schools.

It is quite obvious that the L.A. school district must grant Pacific Palisades a waiver and change its own policies regarding student absenteeism for the children's sake.

Now, look at D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), where vouchers and charter schools have taken on new meaning. For two decades, D.C. taxpayers have been paying exorbitant sums, sometimes upwards of $40,000 per student per school year, to send special-education students to other states sometimes as far away as Delaware because DCPS can't do the job. Moreover, even those students who are bused to schools within the city's borders are often late for class or late getting home, or their parents are up in arms about their lack of academic progress. The other costly downside of this special-education boondoggle is that the school system is already facing a $35-million deficit, and the school year is barely half over.

Fortunately for the students and their parents, there are two charter-school applications under consideration specifically for special-education programs. If chartered, the programs would allow students to stay in the city, drastically cut down on transportation and boarding costs, and provide parents with a larger role in their children's education, since parents of charter-school students are more involved than parents of non-charter school students.

Think about it, though. Wouldn't it be nice if the parents of special-education children, regardless of their child's "special" circumstances, were offered vouchers? Wouldn't it be nice if the Supreme Court made the right call on behalf of all our children and said education dollars should follow children into the classroom? Shouldn't parents be offered other ways to avert the whims of an entrenched bureaucracy that rewards children for bad behavior, like the Los Angeles absenteeism policy?

Studies abound state-by-state, charter vs. non-charter, school-reform movement by school-reform movement proving that the more choices available to parents, the better off our children are. One recent analysis, "Making the Grade: Comparing D.C. Charter School to other D.C. Public Schools" by the Center for Survey Research, reported that charter-school parents gave their children's schools higher marks. For example, 48 percent of charter parents vs. 40 percent of DCPS parents gave their children's school an overall grade of A, and 53 percent of charter parents vs. 43 percent of DCPS parents gave their children's teachers an overall grade of A. "In spite of having had to struggle for funding and for facilities, these schools are clean, safe and staffed by dedicated teachers. They are providing hope and opportunity for D.C. children," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS. (You can access the analysis at www.focus-dccharter.org.)

I hope that you now see the true picture, and that you are not fooled by the naysayers who want parents to have fewer choices and say vouchers violate the Constitution and other nonsense. After all, if the District is paying out-of-state costs for special-education students at private schools, isn't that the same as a voucher?

More importantly, I hope that when it comes to our children, the Supreme Court justices see the clear picture, too, and understand that vouchers, like charter schools, are but one means to offer equal educational opportunities.

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