Worth fighting for

US Department of Education

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  • How to expand opportunity in America? Start by giving poor people same set of options that wealthier citizens have.

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  • .@MQ_McShane: Expanding opportunity, little by little, can change the social fabric of the state.

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  • Reason we have schools is b/c great American thinkers knew education could change a child’s lot in life.

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The Arkansas House of Representatives is considering a bill this week allowing individuals and corporations to receive tax credits for donating to organizations that grant scholarships to low income students. This plan will expand opportunities for education for thousands of Arkansas children whose parents’ income restricts their schooling options.

Private school choice programs have been, are currently, and will most likely continue to be controversial because they cause us to question some basic assumptions that we have about education in America.  Who has the right to educate our children?  Who gets to determine what school a student attends?  How do we finance our education system?

One thing that should be less controversial is the performance of our public schools.  According to statistics released by Education Week, in Arkansas the class of 2009 (the most recent for which statistics are available) had a 70.6% graduation rate.  That is essentially unchanged from the 70.5% rate of the class of 1999.  And while that is generally discouraging, the picture is particularly bleak for children of color, with only 65.4% of the Hispanic members and 59.7% of African-American students of the class of 2009 graduating.

But when statistics like this come out, the blame game revs into high gear. “It’s poverty, stupid!” I have been told more than once.  Poor kids, you see, bring so many problems into the school that there is nothing that it can do to overcome them.  The education system is simply re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic of American society.

But if that is the case, what’s the point of having schools at all?  If we believe that education is the ticket out of poverty, but believe that poor kids can’t learn, we have to accept that America will be a perpetually dysfunctional society, that our problems are intractable, and that we will have a permanent underclass of individuals trapped cyclically at the bottom rung of the social ladder.

Now I’m not naïve: poverty matters.  But the reason we have schools is because the great thinkers in American history, not the ones that made excuses, knew that education can change a child’s lot in life, and that with a great education, students can leave poverty and rise to leadership in business, politics, medicine, law, or whatever course they want their lives to take.  That is why visionaries like Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson argued for public financing of education in the early days of the American republic.

So how can we expand opportunity in America today?  We can start by giving poor people the same set of options that wealthier citizens have.  Right now, if you live in Arkansas and have money, you get to choose where your child goes to school.  Research for years has shown that home prices track closely to school quality, and anybody with kids who’s bought a house can tell you how eager real estate agents are to tell you if a home is zoned for a great school.  That makes many of what we consider “public” schools really private schools, with the “tuition” the ability to pay to live in that neighborhood.

Tax credits for scholarship donations encourage citizens and corporations to get involved in the education system in the state.  They provide a direct pipeline, transferring money from the wealthy of the state to the poor in the most powerful form that it can be given, in the opportunity for a better education.  Rather than passing through levels of state and district bureaucracy, with everybody getting a cut, the language of the bill specifies that no more than 8% of contributions can go towards administration of the scholarships, the rest goes to child.

Now I know the most common objection to this program.  Isn’t this draining money from public schools? No, because the money doesn’t belong to the public schools. It belongs to the children, and it belongs to the taxpayers. It is levied from taxpayers for the purpose of educating students.

As longtime civil rights leader Howard Fuller says often, public education is an idea, the idea that we have an obligation to educate the children of our communities.  What we call “public schools” are simply one means that we have devised to accomplish that idea, but they do not have to be the only one.  Allowing money to follow children into the school that actually educates them serves the cause of public education.

I’m no Pollyanna.  I have no delusions that by offering scholarships to low-income students Arkansas will turn overnight into an egalitarian utopia.  What I do believe is that expanding opportunity, little by little, will change the social fabric of the state.  It will create an education system that encourages innovation and rewards excellence.  But even more, it will offer a better world to our children than we inherited from our parents, and that’s something worth fighting for.

Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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