Twenty years ago, a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools. That tide has now reached flood stage, and growing numbers of jurisdictions have decided to empower parents to bail out of their failed public schools. More will surely follow.
The latest jurisdiction - and potentially the most important because of its location and heavy minority majority - is the pathetic District of Columbia public school system. More money is spent per student here than any other place, but students are among the worst educated.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has had enough. As recently as February, Williams, a Democrat, opposed vouchers to give parents and students a choice of where to educate their children. On May 1, accompanied by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Williams announced his conversion. "I fully and strongly support (President Bush's) initiative to bring scholarships to this city," he said. Answering a commonly heard objection to vouchers that they would "drain" money from public schools, Williams added, "We will find that our regular public schools will end up in better shape." Competition does that, monopolies the reverse.
This fall, Colorado begins the nation's largest school voucher program. Eventually, 20,000 of Colorado's neediest public school children will be able to receive academic help in private schools.
Teachers unions oppose school choice, but many teachers send their children to private schools because they have experienced the low-quality education their children would get in the schools where they teach. Many elected Democrats also oppose school choice because the unions give them campaign money. That could change if Democrats take political heat for their anti-choice stand.
In 1997, the moderate Democratic Leadership Council found only 3 percent of Americans gave the nation's public schools an "A" grade, while 43 percent chose between "D" and "F." According to the 33rd Annual Phi Kappa Delta/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, only 25 percent of parents with public school children give those schools an "A" or "B," while 70 percent gave them "C," "D" or "F." In the black community, where children are disproportionately denied their right to a good education, 58 percent of African-Americans rate their local public schools "fair" or "poor," according to a 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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