Sleepers Awake ?


USA Today Editorial


Our view on improving education: Despite success, school choice runs into new barriers

Obama, Democrats deny D.C. kids option they exercise themselves.


Few national images are more shameful than those of innocent, low-income kids milling through decrepit public schools, uncared for, unsafe and barely educated. In Washington, D.C., alone, 173 schools — 67% — fail to meet federal standards of learning.

So it was curious that when President Obama recently allowed 1,716 of Washington's neediest schoolchildren to keep, until graduation, the vouchers to escape the failed public schools for higher-quality private ones, he also closed the program to new applicants. All this occurred as the Education Department reported that voucher participants show superior skills in reading, safety and orderliness. The news was buried in an impenetrable released without a news conference.

Why the ambivalence? Because teacher unions, fearing loss of jobs, have pushed most Democrats to oppose vouchers and other options that invite competition for public schools. Put another way, they oppose giving poor parents the same choice that the president himself — along with his chief of staff and some 35% of Democrats in Congress — have made in sending their children to private schools.

Vouchers have improved the math and reading of inner-city children from Dayton, Ohio, to Charlotte, N.C., various studies showThe Washington vouchers improved the reading of girls and younger kids by about half a school year, though results for other groups were iffier. Yet opposition is so fierce that few voucher experiments survive past the seedling stage.

Florida vouchers were blocked by a party-line vote in the stateSupreme Court. In Utah, they were killed by a union-funded anti-voucher campaign.

This serves only to protect failing schools.

By federal measures, students at 12,978 U.S. schools are failing to improve adequately — 13% of the total. Giving them another option, by vouchers or by other means, provides an escape route and pressures public schools to improve.

Charter schools are another well-proven option for attaining the same goal, and they are gaining in popularity. About 1.2 million students now attend the schools, which are taxpayer-funded and publicly chartered but run by independent operators. The ones requiring strict order, regular testing and more school time have succeeded in raising their low-income students' academic performance above public-school peers.

Yet 26 states either the number of charter schools or charter students, and many local authorities and unions hobble their formation and funding.

In time, the success of the school choice movement might change the political dynamics. Meanwhile, public schools are at least being held accountable under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal requirement that schools make testable, yearly progress in student performance has driven improvements in math and reading for most age groups, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress shows. Measuring teacher performance is the next step. Expanded by President Obama, Bush-era "pay-for-performance" is sure to improve schools — as long as requirements aren't weakened.

As an Education Department spokesman says, "The unions are not happy." But 20 million low-income school kids need a chance to succeed. School choice is the most effective way to give it to them.

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