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Opportunity for all children: Program would help low-income families whose schools have failed

Margaret Spellings makes the case for vouchers; USA Today editorial says no.

By Margaret Spellings

All children deserve a high quality education regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make. When schools fall short of standards year after year, we must give parents options and the information they need to do what's best for their kids. As a mom, I know that's what I want.

President Bush's proposed America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids would help low-income families whose schools have failed to meet state academic standards for five or more years. Parents could use the scholarship money to transfer their children to a higher-performing public, charter, or private school or enroll them in an intensive tutoring program. For those cities and districts committed to meeting No Child Left Behind's goal of every child reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, this is an additional tool to help get them there.

Our administration has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in other choice options, such as increasing the number of charter schools. Today there are more than 3,600 charter schools, compared with 2,000 five years ago. Just this year, we've requested $200 million from Congress for school improvement. That's in addition to almost $13 billion we've provided to help Title I public schools meet their students needs.

Scholarship programs do not replace these efforts but complement them. Students trapped for six years in a school that fails to meet standards shouldn't have to wait another day. The Opportunity Scholarships program is one way to ensure they don't.

We've already seen the success of this approach in Washington, D.C., where two years ago we launched a similar federally funded scholarship program. Thanks to that effort, more than 1,700 disadvantaged students have received grants to attend the school of their choice. Many more students around this country deserve that same chance.

As Americans, we are born into an inheritance of opportunity and boundless potential. Education is the tool that enables us to seize that opportunity, realize that potential and achieve a bright future. As such, education is not a luxury — it's a right — and we will continue our work to ensure every child has equal access to it.

Margaret Spellings is the U.S. secretary of Education.

Don't pay kids to flee schools
Funding for coaches, charter schools could be more effective than vouchers.

by Editorial Staff

On Aug. 24, the children assigned to Cleveland's John D. Rockefeller Fundamental Education Center will troop back to a school with a grandiose name and a checkered history.

Three years ago the Rockefeller school, located in Cleveland's gritty Hough neighborhood, failed to make academic progress for three years in a row. That qualified Rockefeller for state assistance, a team of specially trained master teachers called coaches.

The coaches boosted school spirit, passed along expert teaching advice and shaped a winning curriculum. The students made enough progress to escape the dreaded list of “failing” schools. But when the coaches left, the K-8 school once again sputtered.

What's to be done with Rockefeller and hundreds of others like it around the nation?

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is pushing a new approach: Give the children of persistently failing schools vouchers to attend private and religious schools. The $100 million program, which needs approval from Congress, would be available to students in schools that failed to make progress for five straight years. The program would pay up to $4,000 a year per student for private school tuition or tutoring.

In certain circumstances, vouchers are appropriate experiments. They need to be focused strictly on students in persistently failing schools, limited in time and subject to public accountability.

Would vouchers help the children at the Rockefeller school? Not likely.

Cleveland already has a voucher program, which in 2002 passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court. But researchers who have examined the Cleveland voucher program are hard pressed to decide whether it's helping the children there. Part of the problem is that the available private schools aren't in the neighborhoods most in need of help.

Roughly 1,750 schools around the USA face restructuring, the result of not making progress for five years. And many more schools, such as Rockefeller, hover on the precipice. Rather than paying students to leave those schools, here are some better ways to spend that $100 million:

•Help states pay for coaches. Dispatching a team of outside education experts is a proven success, but Ohio has limited funds to pay for coaches. Michigan ran into the same problem with its coaching program. Asked why the master teachers have to be pulled from barely recovered schools, the director of the Michigan program answered: “We're not Santa Claus.”

•Boost the capacity of effective charter schools. A handful of charter schools — such as the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, the Achievement First schools that started in New Haven, Conn., and the 52 KIPP academies in 16 states — have cracked the code: They succeed with students like those at Rockefeller. But their expansion is slow. Federal investments could make a difference.

Federal accountability rules snagged struggling schools such as Rockefeller, which means Washington has a responsibility to lend a hand. That requires doing something more effective than handing out vouchers that encourage the most motivated families to abandon those schools.

— Margaret Spellings and Editorial Staff
USA Today


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