Point of View

School vouchers: Opportunity is the word

March 13, 2013 

Even education reformers like me will agree that “vouchers” isn’t the sexiest word in the English language. Critics often invoke it to punctuate how bad something is, especially in politics.

But let’s focus more on what it has meant, by application, for hundreds of thousands of working-class children across the country – providing them with an opportunity to obtain a higher quality education. These opportunity scholarships often keep students from spiraling further into academic despair.

In fact, independent studies found that Florida’s educational choice program has in 10 years helped raised its ranking from least effective in adequately educating working-class, mostly minority children to one of the best in our nation.

Nationally, opportunity scholarships are helping more than 245,000 working-class students in 14 states attend schools that help them catch up and excel academically. Imagine what such a program could do for the 48 percent of working-class children in Wake County who failed end-of-grade tests last year.

When critics use strong words like “dismantle” and “destroy” to mischaracterize private school choice, I think of parents like Jessica Oney, a Garner mother whose son is one of that 48 percent. I doubt that Jessica’s objective is to destroy public education, but she and thousands like her want an option – an opportunity – to find the education that works best for their children child, public or nonpublic.

An epidemic 360,000 children from working-class families in North Carolina failed EOGs last year. Visualize that statistic: This is enough to fill Carter-Finley Stadium more than six times!

This devastating number is one of several reasons North Carolina legislators are working to build a more comprehensive “public education” system. By concentrating more on ensuring that learning benefits the entire public, our leaders are moving away from the one-size-fits-all way and exploring ideas to provide more affordable options for limited-income families.

For North Carolina to continue being a great state, we must emphasize innovation and flexibility to improve academic achievement for every student, not just students who come from families with financial means.

Critics say working-class families, even with opportunity scholarships, will not be able to afford private education. This is simply not true. Our organization recently released an extensive study that found that, when excluding the top 10 percent of the highest-tuition schools, the average statewide private school tuition is more than affordable at $4,901. This figure is more reflective of the majority of North Carolina’s nearly 700 private schools.

For the families of the 360,000 children who failed EOGs last year, a $4,000 scholarship would give them more than mere rhetoric, but a ray of hope. Opportunity scholarships make private education affordable and, if signed into law this year, could provide working-class children opportunities to overcome geographical and financial barriers so they can have the best chance of obtaining their state constitutional right to a quality education.

Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina ( pefnc.org).

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