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Ed Feulner

School Choice: Passing the Test
By Ed Feulner
Aug 30, 2012 - 12:18:59 AM

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Hearing teachers' unions complain about extending school-choice options to American families is nothing new. They've been spreading misinformation about efforts to break up their monopoly on education for years. And with millions of students going back to school, we can, unfortunately, expect them to turn up the volume.

Yet every year, the unions' grip on power loosens. Scholarships, education savings accounts, vouchers and other reform efforts keep proliferating. Worse, from the unions' point of view, school choice keeps growing in popularity among parents and students. Forty-four percent of Americans now favor allowing students the option of attending a private school at public expense. That's up 10 percentage points from last year.

Small wonder that the Louisiana Association of Educators threatened last month to sue private parochial schools in the state that plan to accept voucher students this fall. Or that the union-supported Obama administration has supported a plan to give federal-issued paychecks directly to local teachers. Desperation must be setting in.

And, of course, the calls for still more taxpayer money persist -- despite the huge increases in federal education spending that occurred over the last decade. President Obama's FY 2013 budget request included another major increase for the Department of Education -- 2.5 percent more than last year -- to nearly $70 billion.

We're now spending an average of $11,400 per student, a record amount. Yet test scores and other measurements of academic achievement continue to lag behind.

Given this state of affairs, we should be glad school choice is on the rise. Among the promising signs we see:

New Hampshire is one of 11 states to offer scholarships for underprivileged students to attend private schools. Parents unhappy with their local public school have a choice. They can do something to get their children into schools they feel would better meet their needs. Businesses and individuals who donate to private school scholarship funds receive a sizable tax credit. The scholarships average $2,500 for students whose families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

South Carolina has a tuition tax-credit program that lets children attend the school that's right for them. Who's eligible for the tax credit? Anyone who donates to the privately funded scholarships that have been set up for low-income and special-needs students. The program gives tax deductions of up to $4,000 to families to help cover the cost of sending their children to private schools, $2,000 for homeschooling, and $1,000 to help with expenses related to sending their children to an out-of-district public school.

North Carolina is home to an elementary school that has used online learning to move from the middle of the pack on student achievement into a tie for second place on state tests. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Juan Williams explains how:

"All of their textbooks, notes, learning materials and assignments are computerized, allowing teachers and parents to track their progress in real time. If a student is struggling, their computer-learning program can be adjusted to meet their needs and get them back up to speed. And the best students no longer wait on slow students to catch up. Top students are constantly pushed to their limits by new curricular material on their laptops."

Then there's homeschooling. Heritage Foundation education expert Lindsey Burke says it may be the fastest growing form of education in the U.S., rivaled only by charter schools. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show a 74 percent increase in homeschooling since 1999 alone, with approximately 1.5 million children (2.9 percent of school-age children) being homeschooled in 2007. The numbers have only grown since then. Some experts place the current number of homeschooled children at more than 2 million.

These and other encouraging trends suggest that the status quo in education won't necessarily remain the status quo much longer. The trend is flowing away from government control -- and toward parental control.

"Parents are the first and the most important educators of their own children," Pope John Paul II once said. "They also possess a fundamental competence in this area; they are educators because they are parents." They are the ones who should be directing education, not Washington. The more our education policy reflects this truth, the better off our children will be.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).


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