True change found in school vouchers

Posted: Feb 12, 2003 12:00 AM
President Bush's fiscal budget for '04 includes $756 million for school choice programs. That's good news for the nation's minority students who, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, drop out of high school at a disproportionate rate. The report, which calculated the graduation rates for the 50 largest districts in America, found that 44 percent of African-American students and 46 percent of Latino students drop out of high school, compared to just 22 percent of white students. There is a logical progression; a lack of education equals a racial achievement gap equals a lack of economic integration equals ugly stereotypes about how minorities are lazy and unintelligent. For these reasons, improving the graduation rates among minority students should be considered one of the primary goals of the civil rights movement. There is ample evidence that vouchers could help redress this disparity by giving parents and children more educational options, while holding public schools accountable for their performance. But for reasons of self-preservation, members of the public school Cosa Nostra continue to oppose school vouchers. That's what Education Secretary Rod Paige confronted last week when he met with Washington, D.C., school officials to discuss strengthening education in the nation's capitol. Predictably, the school officials chaffed at the idea of accountability. "Vouchers drain critical dollars from neighborhood schools and divert attention from the reform effort already under way.." said school board members in a written statement. And because schoolteachers represent one of the largest unions in the country, the Democratic Party continues to underwrite their tired rhetoric. "You are not going to see our government participate in a government-sponsored voucher program," proclaimed the district's Democratic mayor, Anthony Williams. Meanwhile, the needs of countless schoolchildren - mostly of color - fall by the wayside. So, why are so many minorities dropping out of high school? That's the question I asked Dr. Jay Greene, the researcher who conducted The Manhattan Institute's study. "I suspect that part of the problem is that too many in the education establishment believe that African-American students cannot really do much better and so they tolerate a system with incredibly low graduation rates for black students. If expectations for African-American performance were much higher and if African-American students had access to the same range of educational options available to affluent whites, including private school options," Greene concluded, "African-American graduation rates would be much higher." This arbitrary shaping of our youth is occurring in poor, urban school districts across the country. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading. There is ample evidence that this is an urban problem. But geography is not destiny. Rather than blame the families for failure, we need to focus on ensuring that the education system offers solutions. That means breaking apart those conditions that con young minorities into feeling trapped, despondent and without hope. We need to direct these efforts at disadvantaged elementary schoolchildren. Most of all, we need to consider the public education system in poor urban neighborhoods as something other than an unalterable fact. That means embracing true change of the school voucher variety, rather than reinforcing the status quo by simply throwing more money at the problem. Then, perhaps we can achieve a public school system that works as well for minority students as it does for everyone else.