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No Excuses for Failing Our Children

Friday, January 1, 1999

America has been committed to equal opportunity in education ever since the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. But our country will never be able to achieve this commitment until we open up choice and competition in our inner-city schools.

The majority of children in our inner cities are not learning. Test scores are abysmal, graduation rates are atrocious, and overall performance is so low that many schools have been shut down altogether. Entire school districts have been taken over by state boards of education.

This collapse of public education is devastating to urban communities and the people who live there. Families refuse to purchase homes in neighborhoods where schools are failing. The stability of inner-city communities, like that of the suburbs, is determined by their ability to attract strong families. Communities that cannot offer families good schools are condemned to failure and deterioration.

What happens to the children is even worse. When children can’t read or do even elementary math, they are doomed in a 21st-century economy. We are further marginalizing an entire community that is already socially and economically isolated. We only hurt ourselves when we produce a bumper crop of workers cursed to compete in international markets with unacceptable skills.

The current political order is unwilling to rock the boat. Co-conspiring politicians remain wedded to a system of waste and mediocrity because of the fundraising prowess of teachers unions and other interest groups. Inner city politicians, whose children more often than not attend private schools or the best public schools, are protecting a system that discourages reform, chokes choice, and ultimately condemns children to a life of social and economic dysfunction.

I am not against public schools. I am against unresponsive and irresponsible public schools where educational mediocrity goes unchallenged. I am against public schools that only expect the least from our children. I am against public schools where improvement is stifled by strict union rules and regulations. I am against public schools that imitate the despair of their surrounding neighborhoods and fail to conquer that despair with the tools of learning and the virtue of hope.

There is no excuse for this. Poor children can learn. Set the standards high, and children will meet those standards. I know, because my wife and I run a school where inner-city children do succeed. We have 482 students at Allen Christian School, many of them poor. Their parents are making an enormous sacrifice to send them here. We have hundreds on our waiting list. If we had 1,500 places as so many failing public schools do, I am confident we could easily fill them all. The same is true for hundreds of private schools in New York and other cities.

There are countless children floundering in public schools, who would flourish in schools like Allen. These children have parents who want a better education for their children. But the public schools are unresponsive to them, and they cannot afford tuition for private school.

I am not against public schools. I am against public schools where educational mediocrity goes unchallenged.

Vouchers empower these families. Parents who now are passive recipients of second-rate educational decisions will be transformed by vouchers into powerful consumers who hold the fate of schools in their hands. Teachers and administrators will face greater accountability in places that, for over a generation, have failed to produce good schools. Parents will sit in the places of power where once sat politicians and unions.

With a voucher in Washington, D.C. or New York City where the per pupil funding for public schools approaches $10,000, new vistas of opportunity would confront poor parents. Not only would less expensive religious schools be viable options for children, but the more expensive elite schools would now be in range for poor families.

Every teacher I know wishes parents were more engaged in their children’s education. What more engaged role is there for any parent than to decide where their child will attend school?

Some say vouchers will "cream" inner- city schools, that better students will leave the system, reducing resources for the poor students who are left behind. But poorer students have already been left behind. Most families who could do so have already moved to the suburbs or sent their children to special magnet schools.

Some say there aren’t enough seats in the private system to meet the needs of inner-city students. Vouchers would help churches and other private institutions multiply the seats available.

In Brown vs. Board of Education the Supreme Court held that when public education cannot deliver equal opportunity for every child, it must move to a new delivery system. Nothing in our Constitution says public funding for education requires that it be delivered by the current construct. All citizens, including those in the inner-city, deserve a quality education and vouchers offer the best hope for delivering it to every child.