School choice should level the educational playing field

On Sept. 9, scheduled by Texas Rep. Tom DeLay to coincide with the Democratic presidential debate, the House of Representatives passed by one vote a bill to authorize school vouchers for Washington. While such lowbrow tactics denied the subject the full debate it deserves – and will hopefully now receive in the Senate, the outcome is a positive one. If the bill passes, it will enable poor students in the district to receive a superior education to that which they are now offered. Many of my more liberal friends oppose vouchers for a wide range of reasons. They say it takes money from the already poor school districts and publicly funds religion.

What critics fail to recognize, however, is that these outcomes are not those of school choice itself, but of poorly implemented school choice programs. Liberalism’s educational imperative should be to expand opportunity by offering the best quality of education for the most number of students, and school choice can help our school districts reach that goal.

Now, do not mistake my purpose. I am under no delusion that competition from school choice will solve our nation’s education woes. The local schools in my hometown of Milwaukee, where the nation’s largest voucher program has been in effect since 1990, have not drastically improved since that time.

So while school choice as a panacea is a politically attractive idea, panaceas rarely pan out. But that, ironically, is exactly the point. Children do not all learn the same way, and we need schools that recognize this fundamental principle.

If states are the laboratories of democracy, then municipalities are the workbenches, and with vouchers we can have many more educational experiments running. America needs school systems that offer parents a true choice with public, private, secular and, yes, even religious options because parents, not school boards, know what works best for their children.

The problems of vouchers are best exemplified by Cleveland’s program, the subject of the landmark Supreme Court case. The vouchers were for a little more than $2,000, making religious schools or the truly awful public school system the only affordable choices – and that’s really no choice at all.

But just because school choice has been done poorly in the past does not mean it cannot be done well in the future. The school choice system in Milwaukee points to the way school choice should be done.

First, education cannot be underfunded, and that is true whether it is the public school system or vouchers. Not providing enough money to parents to send their children to better schools is to enact school choice only in name and not in substance.

In contrast to Cleveland, vouchers in Milwaukee for the 2002-03 year were worth $5,783. While that still might not be sufficient to pay tuition at the most elite school, it put the 102 different schools registered for the program within financial reach for low-income Milwaukee students. The bill passed by the House last Tuesday offers grants up to $7,500, and while that might not even be enough, it is a start.

Second, school choice must live up to its name by providing a wide range of options. Of the 102 choice schools in Milwaukee, many are charter schools and only about 60 of them are religious. Most of those are Christian, but there are also Jewish and Muslim options. Milwaukee’s program offers true choice, and if the district wants to be successful, it must do the same.

When voucher programs do provide enough money and options, they are helping to create a more just educational system. Many students here at the University of Pennsylvania were able to get in because, in part, they attended top-end suburban public high schools, private academies or good religious schools, and I am no exception. Amongst the 11,621 students enrolled in Milwaukee’s choice program were 26 students and my Catholic alma mater, Marquette University High School. These students attended without the school distinction of class or privilege, and equalizing opportunity in such a way is the path to justice.

So to those on my left, yes, we cannot let conservatives use school choice as an excuse to rob the school systems blind; school choice funding should be new money so as not to disadvantage students for whom public schools are the best alternative. And yes, the public schools need more funding, too, and the school districts need more efficient management.

But the children also need more options because the more ways we offer students to succeed, the more of them will.

This originally appeared in the Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania.