Millions of students are trapped in persistently failing public schools. On Tuesday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined congressional Republicans to unveil the America’s Opportunity Scholarships initiative — a plan to give thousands of these at-risk children a chance to receive a quality education.
The Opportunity Scholarships initiative would provide $100 million in grants to local organizations that would grant scholarships to low-income public school students to attend private school or to receive intensive after-school tutoring. To be eligible, a child must be enrolled in a public school that has missed state benchmarks for six or more years under No Child Left Behind. According to the Department of Education, more than a thousand schools qualified in 2005, and another thousand could join this list in the fall.
Hundreds of thousands of children are trapped in low-performing public schools, including many in our nation’s largest school districts. In New York, 125,000 students are enrolled in public schools that have failed for six or more years. In Los Angeles, 170,000 students attend persistently failing schools. In cities like Chicago (121,000), Philadelphia (63,000), Detroit (26,000), and Baltimore (22,000), tens of thousands of children are enrolled in persistently failing public schools and are missing the chance to receive a quality education.
The America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative would help rescue about 28,000 students from bad schools. The legislation would enable the Department of Education to award grants to create scholarship programs — like those in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. — in 10 cities. Research on existing tuition scholarship programs has found that school choice boosts parents’ satisfaction and improves participating students’ test scores.
In a speech on Capitol Hill, Secretary Spellings explained that the Opportunity Scholarship initiative was designed to hold public schools accountable to parents for performance. “Accountability is hollow without real options for parents,” she said. “President Bush and I believe that families in communities where schools fall short deserve choices when it comes to their children’s education.”
Republican lawmakers in Congress back the plan. Senators Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.) and John Ensign (R.-Nev.) are sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Education Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R.-Calif.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R.-Tex.) offered legislation in the House.
Whether the proposal will draw bipartisan support is an open question. In 2003, prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Senators Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.), Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), and Joseph Lieberman (D.-Calif.) and Rep. Harold Ford (D.-Tenn.) backed a school choice program for children in Washington, D.C. This year, state-level school choice programs have been created or expanded in Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin with support from Democrats.
Even the fiercest partisans may have trouble opposing the new Opportunity Scholarship initiative. After all, what politicians would want to deny a student from a low-income family trapped in a school that has failed for six or more years the opportunity to attend a quality school? Democrats will have to answer to their own constituents, many of whom live in these large urban school districts and want new options for their children.
The downside is that the proposal would help only 28,000 of the millions of students in low-performing schools. But it would be another critical step toward demonstrating how school choice programs can benefit families, paving the way for future student-centered reforms at the local, state, and federal levels to give all families the opportunity to choose their children’s school.
But for the parents of children trapped in America’s worst public schools, the broader policy implications aren’t the top concern. They just want their children to have the opportunity to learn in a quality classroom. The Opportunity Scholarship initiative would provide just that opportunity.