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Private School Vouchers: A Civil Rights Issue

June 11, 2005
David Medina

Talk to parents and honest educators in Connecticut's poorest cities, and most will tell you that there aren't enough magnet schools to hold the students who would bolt from urban public schools if they had an alternative.

Low-income families are catching on to the idea that as long as public schools remain their only option, the achievement gap between poor nonwhite students and their middle-class suburban counterparts will never close.

The Connecticut Mastery Test, which was created 20 years ago to help close the gap, offers the best evidence of the gap's endurance. Articles written about CMT results often carry the reminder that large numbers of low-income minority children continue to lag far behind white middle-class children.

They lag because school officials, who forever promise to narrow the gap, also embrace the theory that economic deprivation makes low-income black and Latino students hopelessly difficult to educate.

A study commissioned by Mayor Eddie Perez noted, for example, that the Hartford school system places many students on a remedial curriculum track from the moment they enter ninth grade until they graduate - if they graduate. While there, the students take simplified courses that don't meet the minimal requirements for college entrance.

Even the well-intentioned magnet schools are based in part on the bigoted concept that if you mix poor dark kids in with middle-class white kids, the innate genius of the whites will magically rub off.

Urban lawmakers know in their hearts that the children they represent are not unilaterally dumb. They also know that thousands of low-income parents would welcome an affordable alternative to public school that guarantees better results.

Yet these leaders continue to defend a system that applies the poor-kids-are-dumb presumption as the basis for every costly, ineffective close-the-gap scheme that comes along. They should instead be demanding state-funded private school vouchers as a sure-fire avenue to a quality education.

More than 400 low-income families in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven already educate their children in high-standard private schools through a 10-year-old privately funded voucher program called the Children's Educational Opportunities Foundation, the Connecticut affiliate of a national advocacy group originally funded by Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

The CEO Foundation, according to director Donald Wilson in Hartford, covers 50 percent of tuition up to $1,700, enough to get a child into a decent parochial school. Variations of government-funded voucher programs have been implemented in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Wilson said that almost all of the Connecticut CEO Foundation recipients perform at or above grade level. Unfortunately, the foundation's endowment, less than $2 million from private individuals and corporations, isn't enough to cover the demand.

Research by admittedly pro-voucher professors Paul Peterson and Carolyn Hoxby of Harvard University and Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that students - particularly African Americans - who used vouchers to switch to private schools had better test scores than they did in public school.

Publicly funded vouchers were originally said to violate the constitutional principle of church-state separation because recipients were likely to use them to attend parochial schools. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the religious affiliation of the private schools that accept them is irrelevant.

Today's argument is that government-funded vouchers undermine public education by luring away the most promising low-income students - and the state money to instruct them - leaving urban public schools to deal with the hard-luck cases left behind.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Motivated students shouldn't be trapped in an inadequate system simply because their parents don't earn enough to place them elsewhere.

Government-funded vouchers won't happen easily. Teacher unions will try to crush anything they perceive as putting their members' paychecks at risk.

Nevertheless, providing poor children with equal access to a quality education is civil right worth fighting for. Once urban lawmakers speak up and put government-funded private school vouchers in play, the state will be hard pressed to ignore them.

Let's level the educational playing field and see who's really dumb.

David Medina is an editorial writer at The Courant.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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