Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Dick Armey and Ana Puig
The plight of children in failing schools, particularly minority students in low-income districts, has rightly been called "the civil rights issue of the 21st century." The opponents of school choice have become the anti-reformers of today, sometimes with startling honesty.
William Penn School District Board President Charlotte Hummel actually compared herself to infamous segregationist George Wallace. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer recently that, "I will be standing in the schoolhouse door" to block vouchers, an allusion to the former Alabama governor who stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963 to protest integration.
Remarkably Hummel is fighting to block reforms that would improve a public school system that simply does not provide a quality education for all of our children. Over the past 10 years enrollment in Pennsylvania public schools has declined, while spending and staff have grown by leaps and bounds. According to the Commonwealth Foundation, taxpayers now spend an outrageous $14,420 per pupil each year, while at the same time student performance has stagnated.
Jan. 23 to Jan. 29 was National School Choice Week, when advocates rallied across the nation to shine a spotlight on effective education options for our children. We had an opportunity to see how school choice programs have revived failing education systems across the country. It also challenged Pennsylvanians to answer why we haven't helped our children break out of failing schools and given them the opportunity to succeed.
In other areas with struggling schools, voucher programs, like the one recently proposed for Pennsylvania by State Sen. Anthony Williams, have helped revitalize the education systems. They've also been the catalyst of major reforms by creating competition in the education marketplace and forcing public schools to expect more from teachers and staff.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, established in 1990, is the nation's oldest example of school choice. A study released this month by Dr. John Warren of the University of Minnesota found that students in the MPCP had an 82% graduation rate in 2009, compared with 70% in Milwaukee Public Schools. MPCP ranked higher than MPS in graduation rate in six of the seven years in the study. A report from the University of Arkansas estimated that MPCP saved taxpayers $37.2 million in 2009, because the size of the voucher is significantly smaller than per-pupil spending in MPS.
A review of empirical studies by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that, out of 17 studies examining how vouchers affect academic achievement in public schools, 16 showed improvement. None showed that vouchers harm public schools. The review found that "every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public school."
School voucher programs have also produced less tangible, but equally significant, results. In Washington, D.C., the young Opportunity Scholarship Program "significantly improved students' chances of graduating from high school," according to the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Both parents and students reported higher satisfaction and rated schools safer if the student was offered an OSP scholarship.
It's clear that giving parents and students more choices will produce more freedom for parents, more parental involvement in student learning, more accountability for failing schools, more opportunities for students currently stuck in failing schools and, most importantly, a better education for every child.
Pennsylvania's public school system does not provide a quality education for all of our children. The powerful teachers unions would have us believe that ever smaller classes and more spending is the answer, but the numbers speak for themselves. Simply throwing more money at this problem won't make it go away. Giving parents and students the freedom to escape failing schools can.
Pennsylvania parents tried to implement school vouchers 15 years ago under Gov. Tom Ridge, and the unions won. Our students have continued to suffer since then, but we now have a chance to right the ship. And it is clear that Pennsylvanians want a voucher program. A November poll commissioned by the Commonwealth Foundation found that half of Pennsylvania voters support vouchers. Support is even higher--64%--among the lowest-income Pennsylvanians, those whose kids are stuck in failing schools with no way out.
Now is the time to finally provide Pennsylvania children the opportunity to leave behind their failing schools and attend a school of their parents' choice, at a lower cost than what the state is currently spending. School choice puts education back in the hands of parents, where it belongs--not in the hands of government bureaucrats.
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey is the chairman of FreedomWorks, which organizes hundreds of thousands of grassroots volunteers. Ana Puig is co-chairwoman of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a Pennsylvania-based grassroots organization.