Saturday, April 10, 2010

Give every child a school-choice option

School choice has been proven to empower parents, help children excel, narrow the achievement gap among poor and minority students, and save taxpayers money. Yet teacher unions, education bureaucrats, and their patrons from the White House on down oppose any reform they cannot stifle with red tape and regulation.

But they cannot kill school choice. Against the odds, choice keeps coming back, in the unlikeliest of places.

A voucher program is one step closer to reality in President Barack Obama’s adopted home state of Illinois, despite fierce opposition from the powerful Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Senate Bill 2494 by Rev. James Meeks, a Baptist minister and independent Democrat representing Chicago’s South Side, passed the state Senate on March 25 with broad bipartisan support. The bill now awaits action from the Illinois House of Representatives. Meeks’s modest but important legislation would create a pilot school voucher program for students in failing Chicago public schools.

Meeks wanted to provide every Illinois student with a $6,000 voucher to attend the school of his or her parents’ choice. Instead, qualified elementary school students in Chicago would be eligible for a voucher. It’s a start.

When legislators object that voucher programs divert money from public education, Meeks says: “If the public schools are not doing their job, why do you want to continue to reward them with money?” Plus, a $6,000 voucher is much, much less than the average per-student outlay in the state. A statewide version of Meeks’s plan would be a huge money-saver.

Of course, that’s why the entrenched powers don’t like it—teacher unions are big donors to Democratic politicians.

Choice works where it is tried. Milwaukee’s voucher program, one of the oldest in the nation (outside of New England), has delivered impressive results over its 20-year lifespan, despite heavy regulatory burdens imposed by hostile Badger State politicians. Against the odds, Milwaukee’s voucher program has improved student performance and promoted racial desegregation. A study published in February by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren found voucher program students had a lower high school dropout rate than their public school counterparts.

And the voucher program, which serves about 21,000 students, saved taxpayers more than $30 million in fiscal year 2008, according to the School Choice Demonstration Project.

Despite such proven successes, opponents of school choice impose an impossible standard on voucher programs. Are vouchers a panacea? No. Do they immediately help every single student succeed? No. Then do away with them, critics say. Just imagine if we held all government agencies and programs to a similar standard.

As Illinois discusses a limited voucher plan, an innovative school choice program is struggling to survive in Washington, DC, thanks to the machinations of the Obama administration. The Senate on March 16 defeated, by a 55-42 vote, a bipartisan measure by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) to reauthorize the $18 million District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were keen on killing the DC voucher plan from day one. Never mind that the program gives thousands of poor children—almost all black or Latino—a shot at a first-class education at a cost of only $7,500 a year. DC’s abysmal public schools spend upwards of $28,000 per student to foster mediocrity, illiteracy, and failure.

When Duncan was chief executive of Chicago’s public schools, he was all too happy to entertain requests to place the children of politicians and well-connected businessmen in the city’s most-exclusive public schools, segregated for the rich and influential and paid for with taxpayer dollars. Parents without such powerful connections were left out.

The political class has supported a broad system of “school-choice-for-me-but-not-for-thee” for decades. Kids shouldn’t be disadvantaged simply because their parents don’t have a direct line to the superintendent of schools. Meeks has a remedy for Illinois, and Lieberman is fighting nobly for kids in Washington, DC. Every American child deserves the same options.


Parents Beware: Activists in the Classroom

Parents must be extra vigilant these days in paying attention to the political movements invading today's school classrooms. On April 16, students from across the country will participate in a "Day of Silence," sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Next Friday, "hundreds of thousands" of public school students are being encouraged to take a vow of silence for the entire school day--even during instructional time.

GLSEN claims this student movement is meant to draw attention to "anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools." Of course bullying is wrong, but if students can't get together on school grounds for voluntary prayer groups, how is it acceptable for groups like GLSEN to carry out their own socio-political goals and freely spread its views of the nature and morality of homosexuality?

In response, family groups are encouraging parents to take action in helping to "de-politicize the learning environment by calling your child out of school if your child's school allows students to remain silent during instructional time on the Day of Silence."

In addition, Carrie Lukas from the Independent Women's Forum wrote this week about the politics of Earth Day and the various activities schools will force students take part in to mark the April 22 holiday. Lukas warns: "Schools will take a break from normal instruction to discuss the importance of preserving the environment. That may sound like a harmless activity, but too often Earth Day becomes a platform for pushing an ideological brand of environmentalism. Parents need to pay attention and ask their children's teachers what's their plans are for Earth Day."

Just because it's Earth Day, Lukas rightly notes, schools shouldn't abandon their mission to educate students, provide facts, and encourage them to draw their own conclusions. Al Gore's doomsday prophecies shouldn't be kids' only source of information when it comes to how best to protect the environment.

Find out what your kids' schools are planning for Earth Day celebrations and encourage their teachers to give students the balanced education they deserve.


An Australian State makes a well-timed move -- enticing British students

Many bright British students are being denied university admission this year because of preferences given to students from poor backgrounds and from overseas. See here

And the climate and general environment in South Australia do undoubtedly leave Britain for dead. Australian academic standards are also high. Australian academics fare well in the number of papers that they get published in academic journals

The Government of South Australia will focus on the poor job prospects of graduates in Britain – combined with the gloomy weather – as part of a marketing drive to tempt students to universities Down Under.

It will take a roadshow around five cities in England in a bid to increase the number of students taking up degree courses at four universities in the state. This includes Adelaide, South Australia, Flinders and the soon-to-open Adelaide campus of University College London.

There are already more than 5,000 British students in Australia and the number of foreign students as a whole has soared five-fold in a decade.

It is thought that students could be tempted Down Under if existing tuition fees in Britain - up to £3,200-a-year - are significantly increased next year. An independent review is currently being carried out into fees and is widely expected to result in a dramatic hike.

Undergraduate fees in Australia vary but the majority of courses are priced at between £6,000 and £10,000 a year.

The latest move came just 24 hours it was revealed that more than a third of graduates claimed jobseekers' allowance [i.e. were unemployed] in the last year because of tough economic conditions.

Bill Muirhead, South Australia’s London-based agent general, said: “It’s survival of the fittest and with the state’s economic strength and amazing lifestyle we’re picking off the talent ourselves. “Adelaide is in a state of economic boom and to support that growth, we need to draw in the highest skill sets from across the world.

“Brits have a similar educational structure, but we have the added extras to make a degree a life changing opportunity; amazing weather, many more job opportunities and a quality of life you won’t get anywhere else in the world.”

A roadshow will target Birmingham, Bristol, London, Manchester and York next month. An advertising campaign will tell teenagers that South Australia boasts more than 300 days of sunshine a year and 3,148 miles of coastline.

Students will also be told that there is far more chance of finding employment after graduation amid claims the state “survived the global financial crisis better than the rest of Australia”. [And Australia as a whole did well, with much lower unemployment than either Britain or the USA]


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