Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

January 27, 2010

The Death of DC Scholarships – The Omen

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Robert @ 6:19 pm
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By Robert A. Teegarden

 Normally an optimist, I see sad times for America’s families and schools in the future, especially in the wake of this week’s decision by Congress to curtail the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). This during an administration dedicated to “change.”  One has to ask, change from what to what?

 According to OSP leaders, Kevin P. Chavous (former D.C. Councilman) and Virginia Walden Ford (executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice): “House and Senate Appropriators this week ignored the wishes of D.C.’s mayor, D.C.’s public schools chancellor, a majority of D.C.’s city council, and more than 70 percent of D.C. residents and have mandated the slow death of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This successful school voucher program—for D.C.’s poorest families—has allowed more than 3,300 children to attend the best schools they have ever known.”

 These are sad, even dangerous times, because the values that built this American Republic are being turned on their head.  Leadership in the city of Washington, the Mayor, the public school chancellor, a majority of the city council said, “Continue the program.”  70% of the folks, the parents and residents of Washington said “Yes” as well. Yet congressional and administration leaders turned a deaf ear to the plight and plea of its citizens.  Granted, the city of Washington has a very unique relationship with Congress, in that a Federal agency is responsible for the funding of a municipality directly—since the people of Washington vote for no congressional leader, they’re no one’s constituents so no one feels obliged to listen to them.  But maybe that’s just the point. And maybe this is the clarion call to warn the rest of America of things to come in schooling.

 I don’t wish to wax doom and gloom, but the certain steps taken by the beltway boys and girls in these past several months suggests a very dangerous road ahead.  America’s schools and families will become the focal point around which those uniquely American values are further wrenched and tossed on the scrap pile of history.  The scrapping of the OSP program is only the opening salvo.

 It’s said that a culture develops and grows based on one of four principles: familial, principles/values, political, or economic. We are who we are because of how we value one another, what we believe and hold dear, who we know and what we know, or the trade-in value of our lives.  

 The closure of the DC Scholarship Program occurred not because of how we value one another.  If we did we wouldn’t simply ignore the voice of 70% of the community. The program wasn’t shut down because of any principles or beliefs. How do you argue with confirmed success, fiscal savings, and the moral roots to reason granted to these 3,300 kids?  The program didn’t “die” for economic reasons either; the program clearly saved money.  Congressional leaders could not find $50 million to gives kids hope and a chance to break the cycle of poverty in which find themselves. But they could find $3 billion for the Cash for Clunkers program (a bogus trade-in program to “simulate” the economy whose total costs outweighed all benefits by $1.4 billion).  No, it all came down to politics—the new American value.  Once again government leadership traded the well-being and success of kids for a works program for adults.  It seems like government schools were not built for kids. They seem to have been built to house adults.  When one examines the model on which they were built, maybe that was the intention all along.

 Educational choice was a root value at America’s birth.  The right to educate one’s own children was as sacred as the lives of those who died at Valley Forge.  Of course parents are the primary educators of their children. Of course parents can value and choose.  That’s why there’s absolutely no reference to education in the US Constitution.  Its authors presumed that this bedrock principle and practice was as obvious as a sunset.  Nothing need be said.  Not anymore. That all changed in the 19th century. And today’s Congress isn’t any better.

 So why worry?

 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA—c. 1965) is due to be reauthorized in 2010.  This is the largest flow of federal dollars to the states (in some states it amounts to 10% of their annual budgets).  That reauthorization is going to be held over the heads of state leaders like a great Sword of Damocles to “urge” them to go the way of Congress, not their citizen-parents. Couple this with “stimulus” packages like the Race to the Top Program ($100 billion in competitive grants to states) and you have a pretty good picture of the pressure local public school leaders will be under to line up and comply with Washington.  After all, all we need is more money and we’ll get the job done.

 But what about parents and what about the kids?

 The Washington Scholarship Program was more than a grand experiment whose time was over.  It was a model program that worked.  It harkened back to an earlier time in America when a peoples’ voice would be heard and heeded, when statesmen voted based on principles not politics, and where the “change” that was the US Constitution guaranteed a parent the right to raise and educate their own children consistent with their values, not the state’s or government’s. Why, then, did Congress fail to reauthorize it?

 The changes I see on the horizon don’t look good.  Were private schoolers or home-schoolers involved in the Race to the Top program?  No. Did Congressional leaders listen to their concerns?  No.  Private school and home-school parents pay federal taxes.  Why shouldn’t federal tax dollars benefit their choice, their children too?

 ESEA has a long history of excluding benefits to kids in private schools and in obfuscating benefits to students when local programs fail.  Has anyone lost their job over these illegal acts?  No.  Has any local official been held accountable?  No.  This, then, is where the nightmare begins.

 How does a parent get satisfaction when the government monopoly doesn’t listen?  How can things change for the better when government bureaucrats are beholding not to the citizens who elected/appointed them but to a third party accountable to no one?  Where do you go to find transparency in government policies: local, state or national offices?

 The government monopoly has a union for its employees, a union for its leadership and immunity for its congressional leaders.  Maybe it’s time to find a union for parents; I think it used to be called a legislature.

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New Year’s Resolutions for School Choice Advocates

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Robert @ 6:12 pm

Recognizing the stock some readers put in stating their intentions at the beginning of the year, I offer a few resolutions for the school choice community and movement.  Far from being any gospel, they are offered with the sincere desire to broaden the discussion and considerations for the future.

  1.  Put a face on school choice.  Prohibit the use of photographs of children marching in political parades only.  Show heartfelt pictures of real kids with real success in school because of choice.  The victory of school choice is so much more than a political moment.  It will be sustained and grow because of the day-to-day victories of students and their families.
  2. Do resolve to include everyone from day one.  Don’t bring in the private school providers only after the policy wonks have done their job.  And don’t stop at the school house doors; a dozen principals only means 12 votes; but 500,000 parents means… well, you get the picture.  Start developing parent activists and advocates from the first day that the local coalition meets to consider the future possibilities. All have and deserve a place at the table.  
  3. Resolve to expand your own notion of school choice. School choice is more than a tool of educational reform.  It’s more than a blip on the continuum of educational opportunities in America. School choice is more than some noble economic principle. School choice reaches toward a moral imperative. It seeks the good.  Choice is what American families once had before schooling got organized.
  4. Resolve to tell the school choice story in every corner of America.  Collaborate with other advocates to create a documentary DVD and make it available to all.  Have policy research for the policy-makers. Have coalition strategies for the local leaders.  Have success stories for parents and students.  Have media pieces for the PR folks.  Don’t wait for the next symposium or colloquium or official gathering – pass it around—tell the story.
  5. Remember to preach to the choir again and again.  Once the kids are in the fourth grade, parents can start to lose interest.  Hope can be a hard thing to sustain.  
  6. Remember to preach to the non-choir again and again. The culture of choice we seek requires that all parents instinctively know of all their educational options upon the birth of their first child.  
  7. Link them.  Parents in Tampa, Florida, and Red Bluff, California, have many things in common. They can learn from each other, too. While the political fight is always local, the folks need a network to learn.
  8. Resolve to tell it like it is. If you and I and Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Jay were constructing the idea of education from the get go so many hundreds of years ago, we would surely not create what we have today.  But we no longer have that moment. We have instead the legacy of 150 years of experimentation, failure, fear, bigotry and bloated bureaucracies to overcome.  
  9.  The Florida experience teaches that Aristotle was right. The “truth” of school choice exists in the mean, somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.  If we stay only at the extremes, we suffer the nausea of the political rollercoaster of excesses and deficiencies. While we may occasionally have a victory, sustained support and growth requires both sides of that aisle. Soon, school choice might even become a non-partisan idea as infectious as a virus. Resolve to determine an exit strategy for any national group prior to investment at the local level.  Ensure that those plans are part of the original negotiations

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