In Washington, preparations are in progress for the re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. For those who weren't aware that the underclass suffers the most in American public education, the NCLB has laid bare the troubling gaps in student achievement among racial and socioeconomic groups.
The law theoretically lets parents move kids to a higher performing public school—but in many cities there simply aren't any better choices available. And even where they might be other options, it has become evident that a lot of school systems stall and obstruct until parents get tired and go away. Friends of ours had to call D.C. several times to light a fire under their local school district to move their daughter from one school to another. The process took at least a month.
In other words, one of the most important mechanisms of NCLB—providing choice for parents—really doesn't provide much choice. This is especially disappointing since so many of those in need of a change are disadvantaged families.
For that reason, in the White House NCLB re-authorization proposal, President Bush's 2008 budget sets aside $250 million for "promise scholarships" for low-income students in schools that have consistently underperformed for five years. The scholarships would average about $4,000 and "the money would follow the child to the public, charter or private school of his or her choice." At the state level, Utah has just passed the broadest voucher plan the country has ever seen. Under the program, every family in Utah will receive a voucher worth between $3,000 per child (for the lowest income families) and $500 (for those with the highest incomes). Parents will be able to redeem these vouchers at whatever private school they deem best for their kids.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Utah's school voucher program. Salt Lake City's legislation could very well become the flash point to light the fire under other state legislatures.
In Arizona, a voucher program for disabled students has taken effect, enabling parents to move their special needs children wherever they can find the best education.
With the successful voucher programs in Ohio, Wisconsin, and D.C. in mind, supporters of Utah and Arizona's programs are optimistic that they will survive the inevitable court challenges that will be brought by the ACLU and the People for the American Way.
Henry T. Edmondson III is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.
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