Vouchers Offer Hope to Failing U.S. Students

A new study confirms that things aren’t as bad as we thought in American public education. They’re worse.

In recent international comparisons, American fourth-graders appeared to be doing fairly well, but those in 8th and 10th grades had fallen behind peers elsewhere. Then the American Institutes for Research re-assessed U.S. performance to achieve a purer apples-to-apples comparison and found “a consistent picture of overall mediocrity” in American schools already has appeared by the fourth grade.

Among 11 nations that gave similar tests at all three levels, Americans finished eighth in the fourth grade, ninth in the 10th grade and ninth on the test given to 15-year-olds.

Steven Leinwand, one of the researchers, and Kathy Christie, vice president for knowledge management at the Education Commission of the States, a 40-year-old Denver nonprofit compact between states to improve education, said the results suggest it might be time for national curriculum standards.

More federal involvement? As Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, and Douglas Wilson, chairman of Townhall.com, write in their new book, “Getting America Right,” the federal government already has “usurped parental rights and responsibilities” with “disastrous results” by taking an increasing role in education.

What works, say Feulner, Wilson and a host of others, is parents directing their children’s education and school systems providing choices to meet those needs.

Ask Catherine Hill.

As the guardian of three children who use opportunity scholarships to attend private schools in Washington, D.C., Hill understands the value of real choice in a school system.

Ms. Hill’s nephew, Eric, had reached age 8 without learning to read. School officials were preparing to send him to special education. But he received a voucher, transferred to St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and has been thriving in his new classroom. Now, he not only reads, he receives perfect scores on his spelling tests.

“He’s so proud,” Hill says. “He recently told me, ‘Auntie, this is the best school you could have put me in.’”

Eric is one of 1,700 children who participate in the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Created by Congress in 2004, the $13 million program offers $7,500 grants so that families eligible for the free and reduced-price school lunch program can send their children to private schools.

Parents have told researchers they love the program and are far happier with the private schools they’ve entered than the public schools they left. The program has grown so popular that more than 1,000 children are currently on the waiting list for scholarships.

President Bush has called for a new program to offer similar opportunity scholarships across the nation. His 2007 budget proposal includes the Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative, which would provide $100 million in federal grants to local groups that award private school scholarships. Under the president’s proposal, only children from low-income families who are currently enrolled in persistently failing public schools would be eligible to participate.

In all, more than 20,000 children in 10 states could receive opportunity scholarships through the program. That’s if it survives what’s sure to be an uphill battle on Capitol Hill as special-interest groups, such as teachers unions, line up to oppose it.

These groups can present a formidable front. Last year, the National Education Association alone spent $25 million on politics and lobbying, and not a dime of it went to support sensible school-choice programs that let parents move their children from failing public schools to successful charter or private schools.

But despite their powerful war chest, the teachers unions have been defeated on Capitol Hill before. Case in point is the D.C. voucher program, which was passed by Congress in response to strong grassroots support from District parents, who packed committee hearings and hounded congressional offices.

Catherine Hill was one of those grassroots advocates. “We walked so many halls. We visited so many offices,” Hill says. “But it was worth every hall we walked. The scholarship program is the best thing that ever happened to the District.”

It could be the best thing ever to happen to lots of other parents, too -- if others can follow in Hill’s footsteps through those halls and offices. They have nothing to lose, she would tell them. And they have everything to gain.

Dan Lips is a policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based independent research institute.