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.
Unfortunately, parents who choose to use vouchers for their special needs kids must waive their rights to federal resources provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) although consideration was given to including a federal voucher program when the law was reauthorized in 2004. But some parents opt out of public special education anyway, suggesting that IDEA is not tailor made for every student.
In my state of Georgia, Senate Bill 10 is up for consideration, which will provide vouchers for parents of special education children if they feel they must, for their child's benefit, move him or her to another school. Such flexibility is sorely needed in a state where less than a third of special education students graduate.
Will a voucher program such as the one proposed in Georgia destroy public education as we know it? Not according to the evidence: Florida's McKay Scholarship Program for special education students has only helped the needy and has hurt no one. Among other benefits, the program allows parents, when necessary, to move their special needs children out of situations in which they are repeatedly physically assaulted because of their disability. As much as we might not like to admit it, such abuse is all-to-common.
In Utah, students with disabilities have since 2005 been able to receive up to $5,700 each for private school tuition. In the 2005-06 school year, 138 students participated. So far the state hasn't collapsed into the Great Salt Lake.
But damn the facts. Let the hyperbole begin.
The majority of those who oppose the voucher program in Georgia are the predictable alphabet soup groups, including the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the GAE, and the "alternative" to the GAE, PAGE. Some will be troubled to learn that opponents of vouchers nation-wide now include the PTA, though their propaganda is more muted than that of, say, the NEA. That's understandable given that a Parent-Teacher organization finds itself in a contradiction when it opposes greater choice for those heroic parents who really need it.
Parents of special needs children often fight a frustration that leads to tears. Those tears come, not always because of the very difficult task that life has handed them, but because they lack the leverage to get the job done. The reason SB 10 is so important for special needs students is that it increases their parents' bargaining power. They have an option when it is critically needed. It is very difficult to enforce your child's rights if you have no options. Even if only 5% of special needs children use the scholarship, the other 95% will in a better position to insure their child a quality education.
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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