Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Goldwater Institute: Congressional plan for education isn't the change America needs

Any doubts about congressional leaders' priorities on education were erased last Monday with the release of the new $450 billion omnibus bill. It includes a provision to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which is currently helping low-income children attend private schools in the nation's capital.

empty classroomIf adopted, the measure will basically ensure that 1,700 of the poorest children in D.C. are forced to leave their private schools and transfer back into the District's low-performing and often dangerous public schools. Angered scholarship parents may wonder why Congress is moving so quickly to end this $14 million program just as the federal government is showering money on Wall Street and the auto companies.

But anyone who followed the recent debate over the so-called stimulus package isn't surprised. That plan included $100 billion in new funding for the Department of Education--a one-time increase that's more than the department currently spends in a year. Buried in the bill's thousands of pages was a rule that not a dollar could be used to give children scholarships to attend private school.

The message was clear: Special-interest groups, not parents, still come first in the education debate. For years, blocking school choice and ending the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has been a priority for the teachers' unions and their advocates on Capitol Hill.

The harsh truth is that American education urgently needs the kind of reform that $100 billion just won't buy. Millions of children continue to pass through our nation's public schools without receiving an education that prepares them to succeed and take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st-century economy.

Whether we deliver on the promise that all children have equal access to a quality education depends on whether elected officials have the courage to stand up to entrenched interest groups. This isn't about spending more money. This is about setting high standards and holding students and schools accountable for results. It's about changing the way we train, hire, and compensate our teachers.

Most of all, it's about transferring power from government bureaucracy to parents and school leaders, who are better positioned to determine how children can best learn. Parents should be free to choose the educational environment that works best for their children, and school leaders should be empowered to pick the curriculum and personnel that get the job done.

Unfortunately, instead of embracing the change American education needs, the congressional majority appears intent on continuing to support the failed status quo. That's bad news for all American children. But it's especially bad news for 1,700 poor kids in Washington, D.C.
Dan Lips is senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a senior fellow with the Goldwater Institute. Robert C. Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A longer version of this article originally appeared in National Review Online.

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