Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Let My People Go

My wife was a school teacher for 5 years and my mom has been one for over 30. Both have taught in schools where the vast majority of students were poor. On occasion I have had the privilege to meet the children of the sad stories they brought home. I remember the stained clothes of a young girl who smelled of urine because her parents didn’t have the common decency to buy a litter box or keep the cats outside. I remember the sullen dark eyes of little John whose mother would have him committed to a mental hospital during holiday breaks because she didn’t want to bother with him. I remember the feisty crooked smile of little Amy who hid under a bed with her brother as her father shot two people to death in the next room of their trailer. I remember reading their hopes and dreams written and posted on the bulletin board in my wife’s classroom.

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court struck down segregation in schools in a nine to nothing decision which stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Warren said:

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

What breaks my heart is that 53 years later our schools are still separate and still unequal. The sad reality is that few of the hopes and dreams posted on those bulletin boards will ever come true because they face a grossly unequal education system. These children are bound by geography to attend schools overwhelmed by children with problems. With reasonable concern, more affluent areas make rules to keep their children safe from those problems. To break these bonds every child deserves the right to attend a school of their choice, whether it is the local public school or a private one. We can not place the burden of responsibility on the parents ability to afford a home in better school districts or travel long distances to take their children to better schools. School choice can and will repair the brokenness of inequality.

The unbridled creativity and compassion of our nation’s teachers can solve many of the problems those in poverty face. Their skill and determination should not be corralled by the bureaucracy and petty turf wars built into our current system. It is no wonder why so many teachers burn out so quickly. These teachers should be able to open schools in a competitive marketplace where good school programs succeed and bad programs fail.

As always, shrill voices rise to defend the status quo. They call this risky and they call it a threat to public schools. They ignore the fact that 7 different studies have shown that students that switch to private schools under voucher programs show improved test scores AND the test scores of the students who stay behind at the public schools also improve. Nobody is left behind. Competition forces everyone out of old habits to make needed changes ignored for years. History has shown that dumping billions upon billions of dollars into failed school systems hasn’t improved test scores at all. A mountain of evidence supporting school choice rises before them, but these patrons of the past defend the status quo.

They also ignore the fact that Milwaukee has had school vouchers for 17 years. They ignore that Cleveland and Washington D.C. have school vouchers, and when it came time to rebuild the tattered schools of New Orleans’, the choice was clear: Vouchers and School Choice. They ignore the fact that Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland all have nationwide voucher and school choice programs. None have gone back to our old system. All of these countries not only outperform our students, they are getting further ahead every year. The only risk is to expect our children to compete in the future marketplace with a school system based in the past.

What is the status quo? I am embarrassed to say that our country is ranked 22nd in the industrialized world in education and we are falling further behind every year. We see drop out rates in many poor school districts surging past 50% and 60%. Can you look into the desperate eyes of our nation’s poor children and tell them that they don’t deserve the right to choose a better school? Can you continue to herd them into the same failing school year after year without remorse? I can not, and I will not stand idly by while injustice goes unanswered. To claim that shuffling them along the same failed pathway is fair and equal is absurd and offensive. Schools separated by geography are inherently unequal.

So I repeat the words of the Supreme Court that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Equal does not mean taking from some it means giving to all. Equal means that every parent and child has a choice and equal funding to attend the school that most meets their needs. Equal means that hopes and dreams are not a faded sheet of paper on a bulletin board soon to be thrown away. We must have equality, we must have vouchers, we must have school choice.

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