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Keeping the Promise of a Quality Education for Every American Student

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Americans made history in 2009. On January 20, we inaugurated the first African-American to the highest office in the land; Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States and leader of the free world. This momentous milestone comes more than a century after Abraham Lincoln preserved a divided nation and unshackled the chains of slavery for hundreds of thousands of African-American men, women and children.

Yet, even after nearly 150 years, millions of poor minority children, predominantly African-American students, remain trapped in schools that are failing to provide the knowledge and skills that will raise them out of the cruel cycle of poverty. With each passing year, their hope for a brighter future grows dimmer and their ability to live a life of self-sufficiency – free from dependence on government – becomes less likely.

Decade after decade, politicians pledge to improve the quality of public schools, especially in poor urban areas where the challenges are the greatest. Too often, these promises turn to platitudes. Some cave to the pressure of special interests or political correctness. Others offer a myriad of excuses for failure – blaming poverty, funding or society as a whole for the lack of learning in these classrooms.

Then there are those few bold and brave leaders who are successfully challenging the status quo in school districts with large minority student populations. Governor Bobby Jindal and a bipartisan majority in the Louisiana Legislature are providing unprecedented choices to parents and students in New Orleans. New York Mayor Michal Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are grading schools based on student learning. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, DC, are creating a new paradigm to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom. These courageous individuals are raising expectations, demanding accountability and fanning the flames of freedom in education.

Closing the achievement gap by providing a quality education to each and every student in our nation is the economic and moral imperative of our time. According to the U.S. Census, a high school dropout earns one-third less than a high school graduate and 250 percent less than a college graduate. The social costs add up too – with higher crime rates and healthcare costs for students who are deprived a quality education.

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.

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