Increasingly, the formula for rising student achievement incorporates a four core principles – a commitment to high academic standards for all students, greater access to advanced curricula, data-driven accountability to ensure students are learning a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time, incentives and rewards for great teaching - especially for those who tackle our toughest challenges, and choices for parents and students.
While these first four reforms can transform a school system over time, the fifth – school choice – can change the course of a life instantly. A voucher means students can escape a failing system before it fails them. Students who are being left behind in a bloated bureaucracy have a chance to catch up and even excel in an environment that is designed to meet their individual needs.
Knowing this, how can we fail to act? How can we abandon another generation of minority students in a system we know is not working?
The solution is simple: provide a federally-funded scholarship for any student in a government-assigned school that is failing to prepare them for the next grade and beyond. Call it a grant, call it a scholarship, call it a voucher, call it whatever you want. In reality, it is a ticket to opportunity and financial independence.
While states should remain responsible for managing their own public school system, it is in the national interest to ensure these schools are preparing their students to succeed in the increasingly competitive global market. Rather than nationalize public schools with a one-size-fits-all set of standards and curricula, the Federal government should provide parents with the financial ability to choose an alternative to a state system that is failing their children.
A federal scholarship for students in failing public schools would spark a national movement of reform that will raise the quality of education in public schools across America. Our experience in Florida proves it.
Just ten years ago, Florida schools were failing and our students routinely scored at the bottom in the nation on standardized tests. As part of a major overhaul of our school system, we created Opportunity Scholarships to allow students to escape chronically failing schools. When all students had choices, all schools got better.
Unfortunately, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Opportunity Scholarships unconstitutional because private education was different than public education.
Under their tortured logic, it is better to send money and kids to a bad public school than to a good private one.
While education reform is successfully closing the achievement gap in Florida, much more needs to be done. The President and Congress have the power to transform the quality of education in our country simply by offering poor students a choice in their school.
Imagine if the Federal government had invested just 1 percent of the $787 billion stimulus bill to fund scholarships for students in high-poverty, low-achieving schools. That bold investment would provide economic returns for the long-term, not the least of which would be closing the achievement gap.
America will only achieve racial equality when we provide children in poor families, many of them minorities, with the same opportunity for a quality education as children from middle income and affluent families. Our elected leaders have the power to transform young lives and to provide a path to prosperity. That is my hope for the current and future leadership of our nation.