As someone who strongly believes that *ALL* parents (not just wealthy ones) should have true school choice in this country, I’m glad to see President Bush call for the creation of a “Pell Grants for Kids” program in his final State of the Union address.
While the details of the president’s plan remain to be seen, former Secretary of Education and current Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed a program with the same name a few years ago. It would provide $500/year to all K-12 students whose families earned below the median income for their state to attend any accredited government-run or private school. It could also be used for homeschooled children using an approved independent study program.
If a government-run school attracts a PGFK student, there is a net *INCREASE* in funding. While individually the amount is modest, it can add up quickly. A school enrolling 500 PGFK students would get an extra $250k, money that could be used for such things as smaller classes or art, music, & elementary foreign language programs.
In 1968 Ted Sizer, then at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, called for scholarships of $5000 per child (a whopping $29k in today’s dollars!) for the poorest half of American schoolchildren, which could be used at any accredited school.
In 2000, Sen. John McCain called for shifting $5.4 billion in Federal spending from farm subsidies (which disproportionately aid wealthy agribusinesses) to vouchers for low-income kids. The RAND corporation did a comparison of government-run and Catholic high schools in New York City serving a primarily poor, African-American and Latino student population. The results were striking:
95% of the Catholic school students graduated vs. 50% of the govt. school students.
66% of the Catholic school graduates received the rigorous Regents’ diploma vs. a mere 5% of the govt. school graduates.
The average SAT combined score among Catholic school students was 160 points higher than the average for government school students, even though the test was taken by a much higher percentage of the class (85% vs. 33%).
A similar comparison was done by the NY State Department of Education comparing elementary schools with the highest minority enrollment. Of the schools with 81-100% minority student population, Catholic ones outscored government-run ones by 17% in reading and 10% in math in 3rd grade and 10% in reading and 11% in math in 6th grade. While critics claimed these results were due to “selection bias”, the study found that Catholic and public schools had similar percentages of students from troubled families with low incomes.
Similar results have been found in other places. A study of LA schools done by the Pacific Research Institute found that Catholic schools serving low-income minority students have a much lower dropout rate and send a much greater proportion of their graduates on to college than government-run schools with similar demographics. University of Chicago Professor of Education Anthony Bryk and University of Michigan Professor of Education Valerie Lee found that between 10th & 12th grades, the average minority student at a Catholic high school gained 3.3 years in mathematics achievement vs. only 1.5 years at government-run schools.
Drs. Bryk and Lee attribute the success Catholic schools have in educating poor and minority students to the learning environment they create:
“Catholic schools foster an environment in which rigorous academic work is pursued by all students within a personally supportive and caring environment — an environment that encourages a sustained commitment to learning among both students and teachers….Catholic schools’ academic success [can be attributed] to four characteristics: a common core of academic work for all students; a supportive, communal style of organization; decentralized governance; and an inspirational ideology….An inspirational ideology promotes a vision of the school as a caring community committed to social justice. What Catholic high schools value is not limited to the knowledge students must acquire to succeed in life; the schools also seek to shape an ethical perspective toward personal responsibility and societal engagement. This mission stands in sharp contrast to contemporary public schooling, which is now driven by the rhetoric of the marketplace, a radical individualism and the competitive pursuit of economic rewards.”
It’s time to end the government near-monopoly on K-12 schooling for low-to-moderate income families. Let parents choose the educational option that is the best “fit” for their child- whether that’s a government-run school, a Catholic or other religious school, a secular private school, an independent study program, or home education without government funding but also without government interference.