Today these inner-city options are themselves at risk. While private and religious schools are serving more minority children than ever (the minority enrollment at Catholic schools has grown by 250 percent since 1970), the financial squeeze on these schools is intense and tightening. Between 1996 and 2004, nearly 1,400 urban center faith-based schools have closed, denying 355,000 students the education of their choice.
President Bush has asked the Congress to spend $300 million of the massive educational budget on a new "Pell Grants for Kids" program for elementary school students. The proposal is modeled on the college-level Pell grants program.
Under the president’s proposed program, the grants would be available to students enrolled in schools that are demonstrably failing despite the massive attempts to rescue them. The grants could fund private school, faith-based and out-of-district public school options. Parents would make the call, giving them the leverage to demand and get improvements in the local public school.
Our nation's divided mind about education is a result of tradition and a series of judicial decisions that have weakened the local, parental, and religious commitments of public elementary schools. Choice prevails at the upper levels and is actively resisted where it may matter most, with children in their formative years when the habits of learning are acquired.
Today, thanks to the work of organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund, the right of younger students to the free exercise of religion on an equal basis is being acknowledged, slowing down the rush to a radically secular school environment in many parts of the country. While it is by no means the only reason for the home schooling phenomenon, that radical secularization has prompted many parents to rethink completely their relationship with the publicly funded option.
Parents want options that reflect their values. The goal of public policy, in this regard, should be to empower parents and provide them with resources, not force them into an unresponsive mold. If the nation’s children are to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn, governors should fight against the inclination to appease entrenched special interests and look to parents for answers. After all, they know their children best.