Helping all students make the grade

Posted: Dec 15, 2006 12:01 AM
Helping all students make the grade

Most sports seasons end, and players get time off to rest and plan for next year. In Washington, though, politics is the sport, and the season never ends.

We’ve just come through a congressional election, and before the new lawmakers have even taken office, some candidates are planning presidential runs in 2008.

So while pundits debate the merits of Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh and Barack Obama vs. John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Guliani, let’s look forward by looking back.

In 2004, John Edwards was a relative newcomer. But the North Carolina Democrat made a big splash by claiming there were “two Americas,” one for the wealthy (a small country, no doubt) and another for everyone else. As is so often the case in politics, though, rhetoric doesn’t match reality. The Census Bureau says only about 2 percent of the population is chronically poor, meaning they’ve lived in poverty for four years or more. And many of today’s poor will move up the income ladder, even as many of today’s rich will move down. Between 1996 and 1999, 38 percent of households in the bottom quintile moved higher, while 34 percent of households in the top quintile moved to a lower one.

Of course, some are always left behind, and we need to change that. So the correct question becomes, “How can we help the remaining households move up?” A big part of the answer: Improve education by giving every family school choice.

The wealthy already enjoy that. People who have good incomes can choose where to live, so they almost always pick an area with quality schools. Poor families, on the other hand, have little choice. They live wherever they can afford to, whether the schools are good or not.

So it’s no surprise that, as the Department of Education has reported, one-third of all failing schools draw at least 75 percent of their students from low-income families or minority groups. Meanwhile, only 5 percent of schools with low concentrations of these groups are labeled as “failing.” Parents at all income levels understand this instinctively -- and are eager to get their children into better schools.

Back in 1999, the Children’s Scholarship Fund was overwhelmed when it offered 40,000 private-school scholarships and more than 1 million students applied, or about 31 for each available scholarship. And these parents applied knowing that, if they won a scholarship, they’d still have to pay about $1,000 per student, a sizeable investment for a poor family.

Or consider our nation’s capital, where 1,800 students from poor families attend private schools with the support of the Washington Scholarship Fund. Parents love the program.

“As a parent, I know that getting a quality education is very important for all kids,” a father of three students says. “To give my kids that quality education would have been impossible without your help.” A mother of two adds: “Had my children not been beneficiaries of the WSF, they may not have been afforded the opportunity to receive a wonderful education nor a chance at a bright future.”

But this progress is in danger.

The D.C. program must be re-approved by lawmakers next year. With Congress having changed hands, it’s not clear the scholarship fund, as successful and popular as it is, will be continued. In the last Congress, the House passed the measure only 205 to 203, having split largely along party lines. All but 14 Republicans voted in favor; all but four Democrats voted against. Yet what’s certain is that if the program’s ended, the students will be the real losers.

If politicians really want to improve lives, they’ll expand -- not shut down -- the school-choice programs that are already helping students from poor families. Apparently it’s never too early to start campaigning, so let’s make school choice a critical factor in the 2008 elections.