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Monday, February 06, 2006

Bush Opportunity Scholarships May Be His Most Important Domestic Goal

America's public schools desperately need the kind of top-t0-bottom genuine reforms that can only be brought about by instilling a major element of competitive necessity by giving parents wider choices about which schools their children attend.

But giving parents more control over their children's education means ending the existing public school monopoly, so teachers and other professional educationist unions and associations go ape whenever choice in education is mentioned by the White House or Members of Congress.

Even so, Bush is proposing a very modest expansion of parental choice under the No Child Left Behind Act. Here's the Education Department web site description of the proposal, which is estimated to cost $100 million in its first year if it is approved by Congress:

"Expanding Options for Parents and Children:
"President Bush and the U.S. Department of Education have recognized the need for parents and children in schools identified for restructuring to have expanded options for improving their educational experience.

"America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids would provide competitive grants to states, school districts, and non-profit organizations, including community and faith-based organizations, for:
* Scholarships for low-income children to attend the private school of their choice or;
* Scholarships to receive intensive, sustained tutoring.

"Tuition and Fee Assistance:
"Parents of students attending schools in restructuring who choose to send their children to private schools would receive scholarships of up to $4,000 to cover private school tuition, fees, and necessary transportation costs.
"In making awards, grantees would give priority for scholarships to enable parents to send their child to the private school of their choice."

When Bush first proposed NCLB, it included a provision for a smaller - $1,500 - voucher but for all children in failing public schools, rather than the much narrower group of children in schools that fail for six consecutive years. The 2001 voucher provision died on Capitol Hill as part of the price Bush paid to get Sen. Edward Kennedy to support passage of the overall NCLB bill.

Subsequent Bush budget proposals have included voucher proposals, but none were ever pushed by the administration in any serious manner. But the 2007 budget proposal includes a larger voucher and a specific amount of money to help kids in the worst of the public schools.

It's hard to imagine how any Member of Congress or any other public official could be against giving such kids a ticket out of the institutional nightmares in which they are currently trapped, but you can be sure the NEA and AFT are about to go to DefCom 5 alert status.

That political calculation could change tomorrow if Bush would only start going to these schools that chronically fail and stand in front of them demanding that the NEA and AFT let the children go free.

By so standing at the school house door, Bush would become a hero to a generation of parents and children and the public school monopoly would find itself trapped in the same doomed position as Alabama Gov. George "Segregation Now, Segregation Forever" Wallace in 1963.

At least Wallace was smart enough to figure out he and the segregated South had to change. I'm not optimistic that the NEA, AFT and other public school monopolists will be as intelligent or as willing to accept change.

But the day America's parents and kids get a way out of lousy public schools is the day reading, math, English, history and science scores start going back up, teachers will begin to be restored as credible authority figures and the nation's founding principles will again be studied by the next generation.

If Bush can make that happen, he will have quite a legacy indeed.