Thursday, June 19, 2008

Getting It Right: Matt Kinnaman on School Choice

Genuine school choice: Imagine that

By Matt Kinnaman

Gov. Deval Patrick calls his education agenda the "Readiness Project," and there's no doubt that today's students need every advantage to achieve readiness for success in an age of rapid technological innovation.

Here's the upside: With an active political imagination and some rarely-displayed political courage, school reform can be truly revolutionary. It's exciting to imagine what the future of education might look like.

But are Gov. Patrick and the Democrats on Beacon Hill truly interested in this, or are they more interested in keeping peace with the teachers' unions? One sure way to test their political appetite for genuine education innovation is to engage them in an easy imagination exercise. Here goes...

Imagine a government program that achieves more than 90 percent satisfaction among its participants and delivers benefits predominantly to minorities and the poor. Imagine that the most direct beneficiaries are children. In addition, imagine that the benefits include proficiency in math, science and literature, augmented by enhanced opportunities for character development and the fulfillment of personal potential in an environment normally reserved for the financially well off but now accessible to low-income families.

Imagine that the parents in these families are overjoyed at the success their children are experiencing through this program.

Now, imagine the politicians with jurisdiction over this program killing it. Whose side would you be on? Would you stand with the low-income and minority parents and their children, or would you stand with the politicians and the lobbyists who influence them?

It ought to be easy for Gov. Patrick and the Massachusetts Legislature to take a stand, because in real life, it's not just an imagination game. It's precisely what is playing out in Washington D.C., and its lessons are applicable here in Massachusetts and across the nation.

Here's the background: In 2004, the then-Republican Congress approved the Opportunity Scholarship Program for students in Washington D.C., home to some of the worst performing schools in the United States. The program was passed with the support of leading Democrats in D.C. city government, and it provides scholarships of up to $7,500 to families who then use the funds for tuition at private schools of their choice. It has been outstandingly popular among those without the financial ability to choose better schools for their children.

In 2007-2008, almost 2,000 students were enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Their average family income, $22,736, is a thin gasp above the federal poverty level for a family of four. For these recipients, vouchers have been a lifeline to a brighter future. Success stories are numerous.

It changed the world for Wendy Cunningham and her daughter Jordan. Jordan now attends the private Georgetown Day School and will study this summer at two colleges before completing her last year of high school. Having seen the effects of genuine school choice in her daughter's life, Wendy Cunningham said, "Other people should have the same opportunity and choices."

Ironically, members of Congress who would never allow their own children to attend Washington D.C.'s public schools are now telling the poor parents of D.C. that the Opportunity Scholarship Program will be axed. Why?

Not because of cost overruns. The entire annual cost of the program equals 1.5 hours of budget expenditures at the leviathan Department of Education. Not because of poor performance. The recipients—the parents and their children—are thrilled with the results. Not because of lack of demand. Hopeful parents with big dreams for their children clamor to get in.

Then why discontinue the program? Could it be that the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union and one of the most politically powerful special interests in history, isn't really about educational effectiveness after all, and that the Democrat Congress is in the pockets of the NEA?

As Gov. Patrick and the overwhelming Democrat majority in the Massachusetts Legislature debate the future of education, they might learn from the shameless hypocrisy on display in Washington, where members of Congress prohibit their poor constituents from enjoying the educational privileges these legislators reserve for themselves.

The message for Gov. Patrick and Beacon Hill? Don't stop at incremental reforms. Instead, pursue true readiness for excellence. Remove all caps on charter schools. Embrace vouchers. Encourage home-schooling. Empower parents with maximum educational options by making them the effective owners of every educational dollar in a free market.

Taking these bold steps will refute an otherwise inescapable conclusion: that the liberal commitment to pro-choice ideology doesn't extend to educational choice for low-income and minority families.

Matt Kinnaman's column appears every Thursday in the Transcript.