The lessons of school choice

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The Article

Choosing how your children are educated should be as routine in America as the ability to choose your neighborhood, your church, and your place of employment.

It stuns me that in 2006, the vast majority of students in failing schools are still trapped there. My husband and I have enjoyed the marvelous blessing of choosing freely between private schools, public schools and home schooling for our children. Yet, the reality for most parents is no real choice at all.

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002 by a large majority of Congress, was aimed at correcting the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” in President Bush’s memorable phrase. Academic achievement would be boosted by demanding accountability—and educators would be held accountable by testing students regularly and measuring their progress. The parents of students in failing schools were supposed to have at least some choice to move to schools that perform.

Four years after NCLB was enacted, folks on both ends of the ideological spectrum are unhappy with the results and what it has failed to deliver. A bipartisan commission has been formed to figure out how to address the failings of NCLB before the legislation comes up for renewal next year.

It’s easy to see why liberals object to NCLB. One of their most diehard constituencies, teachers’ unions, reacts to the notion of accountability with fear and dread. How dare those know-nothing parents demand to know whether their children are learning! The nerve!

Still, there’s more to a good education law than testing and accountability (which are certainly needed). As conservatives have consistently noted, parents of all income levels should have more choices in where their children are educated. In a recent story for Family News in Focus, Heritage education expert Jennifer Marshall says policymakers need to return to promoting choice in education, which was part of NCLB’s original intent.

Yes, some choice is contained in NCLB: “But it’s important to remember that this was a very, very limited amount of choice and that this limited amount of choice has not been well implemented,” Marshall said. As the law ground through the legislative process, the amount and scope of choice it contained became significantly watered down.

The lack of choice is pathetic, considering how much increased choice can help students. A Heritage paper written by Kafer and Heritage analyst Kirk Johnson at the same time NCLB was born, focused on a study by researchers at Harvard University, Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Wisconsin that shows how choice in education equals improved education. The three-year study of the correlation between voucher-like scholarships offered by the School Choice Scholarships Foundation and low-income student achievement in New York City revealed:

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Rebecca Hagelin
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