School Vouchers: Necessary for Effective Public Education

A few months ago, John Stossel did a 20/20 special report called “Stupid in America,” which examined the state of American public education today. The conclusion: the American public education system is terrible and in need of major reforms. One reform is school vouchers. A pilot program was implemented in the Washington DC school system last year, and The New York Times (shock!) has an article about the positive effects of the program.

More than half of the students in the program use the vouchers to attend religious schools, mostly Catholic. Among secular schools, Rock Creek International School, a language-immersion school that teaches French, Spanish and Arabic, has been the most generous in subsidizing students.

In accepting 29 students this year, officials said Rock Creek committed itself to helping the children fit into a middle and upper-class environment. Last year, the school raised enough donations for all the voucher students who wanted to go to join class trips to Greece, Costa Rica and Qatar, said Josh Schmidt, the admissions director…

Patricia William, a single mother, said that at first she liked her son Fransoir’s public school, John Quincy Adams Elementary School, a tall sprawling building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Teachers seemed good, but overwhelmed. It was other parents, not teachers, Ms. William said, who told her that Fransoir was hyperactive. “I was not getting quality information from them on time,” she said. “For some reason, it was not working.”

Fransoir is one of 62 students with vouchers attending Sacred Heart Elementary, a Catholic school of 210 students, where he learns prayers along with five-digit multiplication and long division. He takes medication for his hyperactivity. Last year, he teamed up with another child to research the sinking of the Titanic. This year, he is interested in reptiles. Ms. William said her son today has nothing in common with the boy who once lay on the floor, turning in circles like a clock wound too tight. Now she is learning from him, about more than just math or reading or a sinking ship.

“All the effort he’s making every night makes me want to sit with him and study,” said Ms. William, a high-school dropout. “I’m learning academically, but also about making an effort.”

Competition is the only way to improve the quality of public education. In fact, so many Washington DC students are opting out of the public schools, the schools are forced to adapt.

At Fransoir’s old school, Adams Elementary, the principal, Pedro A. Cartagena, said that about 70 students had left for charters, and with just 200 students remaining, Adams was one of many public schools designated an “underutilized school” at risk of being closed. To survive, Dr. Cartagena said he was exploring the possibility of teaming up with a popular dual-language public elementary school, the Oyster School, to transform Adams into a dual-language middle school.

The results of the pilot program will determine whether vouchers will be included in the No Child Left Behind Act when it is renewed next year:

The Washington program is being watched closely because when Congress must tackle reauthorizing President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, in 2007, the program could become a model for Republican efforts to extend vouchers nationally. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Wednesday in an appearance in New York City that the Bush administration wanted “to help spread this experiment.”

Ed Morrissey at Captain’s Quarters points out the importance of vouchers for the 2006 mid-term elections:

The GOP still has a window of opportunity to create meaningful educational reform through competition. When the New York Times reports on how successful such a program has been for disadvantaged children, it indicates that the old politics of education no longer apply. The Republicans can get ahead of the curve if they act quickly and decisively before the 2006 elections, after which their control of Congress may be in doubt. However, they can establish themselves as the champions of true economic freedom and anti-poverty reformers by creating many more opportunities for these parents to ensure the success for their children.

These parents will vote for hope, not for yet another outlay of billions into a system they know from painful experience has failed them, their children, and their grandchildren. If the GOP wants to get serious about winning a bigger share of the urban vote, they need to act now to do so. So far, campaigning as Democrats on education has won them nothing.

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