Point of View

School vouchers: Why the status quo is unconscionable

February 11, 2014 

With the recent news that thousands of parents from low-income communities have already applied to receive an Opportunity Scholarship for their child to attend a private school of their choice, it is clear that parents have decided to make personal investments in their child’s future. Still, the fight for parental school choice is a fierce one.

I am often asked, “Instead of providing additional options to parents and students, why not improve our existing traditional public school system?” This question is understandable. For the defenders of traditional public schools, private schools make them cringe. And, though there is a minority of people who believe public schools are inadequate and not worth investing in, I am not one of them.

My position on public education reform was best described in the award-winning 2011 documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” Researchers found that once high-performing schools had become low-performing schools and that the low academic scores might have little to do with the actual schools. The real issue might have been the major decline and devastation in the communities surrounding the schools – in warp speed!

Think about it. When I attended public schools in Kannapolis, a textile town, 23 years ago, North Carolina was an economic leader in textile manufacturing. Today, the textile mill smokestacks that once stood in my hometown have been replaced by bright, biotech research buildings.

Twenty-three years ago, 70 percent of African-American households were two-parent households. Today, over 70 percent of African-American households are headed by one parent. Though I would in no way imply that our single mothers are somehow inadequate, I’m appalled by the number of fathers who have abdicated their responsibilities. .

Given the plight of the family, our communities and the global economy, why should we expect our traditional public schools to wrestle with these challenges alone? Parents deserve a school that works for their child regardless of their income or ZIP code. They do not necessarily care about the make or model of a school (public, nonpublic or charter), they just want a school that works.

When just over 29 percent of children from low-income families meet grade standards in Wake County, it is clear that parents deserve greater educational options. And statewide, the number of children unable to perform at grade level is equally jaw-dropping. According to the State Department of Public Instruction, 70 percent of low-income North Carolina students failed to demonstrate proficiency of their subject – that’s seven out of 10 students!

There are those who would legally challenge the Opportunity Scholarship Program on the grounds of uniformity of our public schools and the safeguarding of our state constitution. With test scores in the 30th percentile for low-income children compared with nearly triple the results for wealthier students, where’s the uniformity in that? Moreover, I strongly believe that unimpeded implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program would be in the spirit of our great constitution: Regardless of one’s ZIP code or income, a child will have a better chance of receiving a good, basic and sound education.

The divisions among adults within our traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools must end. It’s about putting parents first so they can best aid their kids. Our state has the chance to be bold and do the right thing by offering these parents a tangible choice. For the first time, many low-income parents across our state are being empowered to make one of the most fundamentally important decisions that could forever shape their child’s destiny for the better. Let’s not take that away from them. Believe in them. Trust them.

To deny them this opportunity and keep them in schools that produce a meager 3 out of 10 proficiency ranking for low-income students is not only unconscionable, but I dare say unconstitutional.

Darrell Allison is president of Parents/Partners for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

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