- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Soon we will mark the beginning of a historic change that will touch several thousand children in the District of Columbia.

For many, it will be like a dream come true: Regardless of their parents’ income, accent or zip code, these children will be awarded an opportunity scholarship so they can attend a private school they otherwise could not afford. This investment by the federal government in D.C. children is rightly deserved, given the symbiotic relationship between the two.

For the first time, economically disadvantaged families in the District will have the same choices about where to send their children to school as do wealthy families. They will be given a chance to explore options beyond public schools, which, while slowly improving, are currently not serving them well.

We have diagnosed the problem and we are treating it, but the pace of change must accelerate, because we cannot afford for any more children to lose their formative school years.

As Thurgood Marshall reminded the court in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools 50 years ago, “There is no way you can repay lost school years.” We agree — there is no rewind button.

Opportunity scholarships can work here, as they have elsewhere. Florida’s first 58 vouchers were issued in 1999 to pupils from two underachieving public schools in Pensacola. Florida has since launched two other voucher programs for economically disadvantaged children. It was reported recently that most of Florida’s first voucher pupils have progressed more than one grade level on a standardized test for each of the four years they have been in the program.

In Florida, as well as in Milwaukee and Cleveland, scholarship students benefited from the voucher programs. It is also clear competition has raised the performance level in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee, some of the strongest advocates for school choice are members of the Public School Board.

Under the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act, which passed Congress last month as a part of the omnibus appropriations package and was signed by the president last week, the Department of Education and the D.C. government are entering into a memorandum of understanding to implement the scholarship program. We will solicit applications from outside groups to run the program and jointly select the organization that submits the best and most thoughtful application.

The law also requires the department and the D.C. government to jointly select an entity to independently evaluate the scholarship program. We are working hard to get all the cogs of the wheel in place so this program can be up and running in time for the next school year.

The District has a long legacy of providing quality private education. Many of these schools already serve our neediest children. We call on our private schools to continue these efforts and to open their doors to more of our children through the D.C. Scholarship program.

These scholarships will not be panacea for all that ails education in the District, but they will help complete the mix of educational options for parents in the city. These options include charter schools, magnet schools, parochial schools, private schools and home schooling.

There is no question traditional “public schools” will continue educating the vast majority of American children. But this expanded school choice approach can and will work here, as it has elsewhere.

We owe it to our young people to create an educational system that makes no distinction between the poor and the privileged. Our system of public education should be blind to everything except individual ability, perseverance and character.

It is simply unfair — in fact, unjust — to use the power of government to chain a child to a school that is not meeting minimum standards. Why deny disadvantaged parents the opportunity to provide the best possible education for their children?

Providing opportunity scholarships for thousands of the District’s children is the right thing to do. We look forward to seeing the results of this program in the coming years.

Rod Paige is U.S. secretary of education. Anthony Williams is the mayor of the District of Columbia.

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