School choice threatened

Star Parker
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Posted: Jun 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Thanks to an active school-choice movement, funded and staffed by dedicated and principled private citizens, an increasing number of American parents have the quintessentially American opportunity of choosing where to send their child to school. However, if the teacher unions, ACLU, People for the American Way and similar organizations have their way, a successful voucher program in Florida will cease operation.

Should Florida's Opportunity Scholarship Program be found unconstitutional, it will be yet another defeat of the poor and disenfranchised at the hands of a pretentious and self important elite. Opportunity scholarships are an important ticket out of failing public schools for the poor. Yet, these elites, a good portion of whom can themselves afford options to public schools if they so chose, for their own ideological reasons, want to preclude choice for poor families.

The constitutionality of Florida's Opportunity Scholarship Program is being challenged because it affords the opportunity to use a voucher, financed by public funds, to pay to attend a private school, including religious schools. This option may be exercised when a public school is found to be failing. Parents can pull their child out of the school, pick a different public school, or use a voucher to finance attendance at a private school.

Performance data show dramatic improvement in test scores and graduation rates in Florida since the implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. A study conducted in 2003 showed direct correlation between school improvement and the option to take a voucher and go to another school. Harvard researchers report that the Florida program is more successful than the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Those who oppose school choice clearly have other goals than creating the best schools and turning out educated, skilled children. This is particularly sad given the obvious and massive problems we have in our inner city public schools nationwide. It is painfully obvious that anyone motivated by achieving excellence would remain open to every path that may lead to achieving it.

So why, when we regularly confront disappointment and failure in our public schools, does there remain a broad contingent opposed to school choice?

I think there are two overriding themes. One is special interests. Teacher's unions like the status quo. Opening up to competition threatens their monopoly.

Second is an elitism that produces an overarching hostility to religion and religious schools. This hostility is so profound that given the option of a better educated child who is the product of a parochial school, these folks prefer mediocrity or even failure.

We need more general appreciation that the public school system does not provide insulation from values. By definition, education reflects values. What other than values determines what you chose to teach a child, what books you assign to read, and indeed your very sense of why you are educating the child?

The issue on the table is not value laden education versus value free education, but competing sets of values. The elites who fight school choice don't want poor kids to have an exit out, particularly if that exit leads to a religious school. Under the guise of neutrality, they want to trap poor kids in an environment that purveys their own relativist, liberal values.

Sex education is, of course, one of the more obvious examples. Recently, Planned Parenthood raised eyebrows by including, in their recommended sex-education materials for "safe" sex for 8th graders, instructions that saran wrap be used as protection when engaging in oral and anal sex.

The National Education Association, which represents public school teachers, has a section for sex education on its website and included is a link to the Planned Parenthood site. So much for value neutral education.

Poor kids wind up being slammed by a double jeopardy. First, they are trapped in failing schools that are insulated from the prime condition that produces improvement _ competition. Second, the failing schools in which they are trapped teach exclusively relativist values that are the opposite of what these kids need for climbing out of chaos and poverty.

The pioneers of public education in America, people like Benjamin Franklin and Horace Mann, viewed it as a given that traditional values and morals could not be separated from the idea of education. On school curricula, Mann said "principles of morality should be copiously intermingled with the principles of science."

American society is too complex (and confused?) today to universally accept core moral principles as part of public education. So we are left with one solution. Allow parents to choose where to send their child to school and allow a marketplace of alternatives.

Under Governor Bush's leadership, the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Florida is opening new doors and opportunities for poor children and setting an example for the whole nation. Let's hope that the Florida Supreme Court gives the green light to this critical and innovative program.