Saturday, January 10, 2009

Good news!

Lennie of Education Matters has agreed to become a co-blogger here. He is from Illinois and his wife homeschools their kids but he still takes a lively interest in what is going on in public education. He will not be posting here daily but his postings will add a valuable new perspective to this blog.

Congress contemplates future of DC vouchers

The arrival of a new Congress and administration is casting doubt over the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded school choice program serving disadvantaged students in the nation's capital. The scholarship program-administered by the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF)-served more than 1,900 children from low-income families during the 2007-08 school year, its fourth year of operation. Families accepted into the program can send their children to the private schools of their choice, using scholarships worth up to $7,500 per student. Since its inception, approximately 7,200 students have applied to participate, representing about four applicants for every available scholarship.

The high demand for school choice in the District should come as no surprise to those familiar with the DC public school system, home to some of the worst-performing public schools in the country. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test, only 31 percent of DC eighth-graders scored "basic" in math, compared with 68 percent nationally in 2007. Only 45 percent of District students can read at a basic level, whereas nationally the number is above 70 percent. Only 59 percent of students in DC graduate high school. These low achievement figures persist despite the District spending nearly $15,000 per student each year.

Poor performance in the public school system has created a natural constituency of parents pushing for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the better circumstances it creates for their children. In 2008, Congress voted to provide funding for the program for another school year, despite strong opposition from some leading voices on Capitol Hill. DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who strongly opposes the program, said in a June 9, 2008 Washington Post op-ed, "I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program."

With expanded liberal majorities in Congress and a new, Democratic administration, Norton's warning could come true, analysts say. Congress must reauthorize the program this session in order for funding to continue beyond the 2009-10 school year. Failure to extend the program would result in many participating children returning to DC public schools. Since the average income of participating scholarship families is $22,736 for a family of four, few will be able to afford the tuition costs without the benefits of a scholarship.

According to Virginia Walden Ford, a school choice advocate and head of DC Parents for School Choice, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is providing hope and opportunity for families throughout the District. "The Opportunity Scholarship Program has empowered parents by giving them the chance to get their children out of low-performing schools and send them to schools that meet their individual needs," Walden Ford said. "We have seen that, when children are placed in nurturing educational environments, they succeed and their parents become active and involved. We've heard over and over that it would be devastating if this program were to end and parents would have to look for new schools for their children who are doing so well in the schools they are currently attending.

"The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has changed the educational direction of all the children involved," Walden Ford continued. "When children are doing well in educational environments, because of expanded options for the families who have had no choice, we see happy endings-not only for the children but also their families and their communities."

Ending the program would be unwelcome news to participating parents. Surveys have shown scholarship families have high levels of satisfaction with their children's schools and increased feelings of student safety. Sheila Jackson, whose daughter is in the program, told DC Parents for School Choice in November, "For the last two years my daughter has been in the scholarship program at a school I chose, and I see the transformation in my child. At 13, she is becoming a disciplined young lady who likes school. She feels safe. I feel relieved."


Sex clinics 'to open' in EVERY British school so pupils as young as 11 can be tested... without parental consent

Sexual health clinics could soon be open in every secondary school as part of a drive to cut teenage pregnancies.

Sexual health clinics could soon be open in every secondary school and college. All pupils would have easy access to emergency contraception and pregnancy testing without their parents being told. Around a third of secondary schools in England - almost 1,000 - already have clinics. Some are mobile units shared by a number of schools. Now an influential study, commissioned by the Government, has recommended extending the coverage to all state secondaries and colleges in a drive to cut teenage pregnancies. Advocates of the approach say children can be deterred from seeking sexual health services if they have to travel to community centres.

But critics say the policy is a 'social experiment' which risks encouraging under-age sex instead of curbing it. Already, the morning-after pill is available to a million schoolgirls.

The survey of school clinic provisions was carried out by the National Children's Bureau on behalf of the Sex Education Forum. It found that single-sex, faith and independent schools were less likely to have clinics. Just 14 per cent of all-girl schools and 10 per cent of boys' schools had them. Only a fraction of the clinics restrict services to children over 16 - the legal age of consent. Among further education colleges, which teach four in ten 16-year-olds and growing numbers of 14-year-olds, almost three- quarters have on-site sexual health services. Some colleges offer condoms only in emergencies but others provide them in vending machines.

The report admits there is a 'lack of research evidence' about the effectiveness of school-based clinics, accessible by children as young as 11. But it says: 'School (and alternative provision) is the one place that the large majority of children and young people attend. 'Not all young people will need to use a sexual health service at school age, but providing a service in school is the best way of making sure that those young people who need the service can use it.'

Ministers have set a target for all schools to achieve 'healthy' status by next year. This means they must either set up clinics or refer youngsters to similar services in the community. But there is concern about the permissive approach of many clinics. Researchers in Bristol, who studied 16 school-based clinics catering for 11,805 pupils, found that only one in four youngsters who attended were advised to consider delaying sexual activity. A major study in the U.S. found the evidence was 'not strong' that clinics increase contraceptive use or bring down teen pregnancies.

UK rates of teenage pregnancy are the highest in Europe and the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show a shock increase last year, despite a ten-year Government strategy aimed at cutting rates by half. Critics say the increase casts serious doubt on the policy of increasing access to contraception and sex education. Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, said: 'Sexual health clinics on school premises send out the message that it is normal for schoolchildren to engage in sexual activity. 'Confidential clinics in schools are part of a mix that is removing the restraints which previously limited underage sexual activity. 'There is no evidence that school clinics result in lower teenage conception rates. Instead, they encourage some teenagers to become sexually active when they would not otherwise have done so. 'The fact that these clinics keep parents in the dark is also a great concern. Confidentiality policies drive a wedge between parents and children and expose young people to the risk of abuse and disease.'

Children's minister Beverley Hughes said: 'The Government supports the provision of on-site services where schools have identified a need and where the scope of the service has been agreed by the school's governing body following consultation with parents. 'On-site services provide young people with swift and easy access to health advice that survey evidence suggests they are reluctant to access through GPs or clinics.


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