For years now, vouchers have been a highly controversial topic in education reform. Proponents see vouchers as a way to deal with failing schools, giving families a chance for a better education and increased opportunity. Opponents see it as taking funds from our public schools, further reducing the dollars available for struggling schools to right their ships.
As a nation, we’ve seen pockets of success on the voucher movement. Cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC have staked much of their reform on the program. And Florida has implemented several statewide voucher systems, including one for special education. We’ve seen initial success, to a degree, while many continue to wait to see the long-term impact.
While the wait continues, the language continues to evolve. Vouchers evolved into school choice. Such language moved the discussion from one of finances to one of family choice. After all, what could be more important than a family deciding what school was best for their child, and then sending them there.
During last night’s State of the Union address, we saw the language evolve even further. President Bush has long been a supporter of vouchers. His Administration pushed hard to get the Washington DC voucher program into place in during his first term. Initial research shows that the DC program has had a positive impact from the start. In fact, so many inner-city students were choosing to use their vouchers to attend DC Catholic schools that the Archdiocese is now looking to convert a significant number of those schools into charters to allow even more students to be educated at the school of their choice.
So how does the President build on his initial DC voucher investment? First, he calls for $300 million to expand school choice across the nation. Then, he crowns the initiative with a new name — Pell Grants for Kids.
The President’s words are worth revisiting, as they set a new tone and new playing field for the debate on school choice. Even the most liberal of Democrats are firm supporters of the original Pell Grants, designed to help low-income students attend college. How, then, can they oppose the idea of Pell Grants for Kids, a scholarship program that lets low-income families send their kids to good schools? It was a bold move, and a bold choice of words, since one can’t imagine that former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell would ever put his name on an educational program from this President. Yet, somehow, it all works.
Let’s look at the President’s actual remarks:
“We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our nation’s capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other nonpublic schools.
Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.
And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential.
Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply the same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”
Over the next few days, we’ll hear how the President played small ball in his SOTU, discussing manageable ideas without swinging for a “we will land on the moon” moment. And we all expected very little in terms of education policy in the speech. Yes, he called for the reauthorization of NCLB, touting its results to date and its bipartisan foundations. But the true education moment was the announcement of Pell Grants for Kids. Who is opposed to liberating poor children trapped in failing schools? Who doesn’t want kids to realize their full potential? Who doesn’t want to support opportunity and hope?
Voucher opponents will likely come out swinging against the proposal, citing flaws in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and again bemoaning taking money from well-meaning public schools and handing it to faith-based and nonpublic schools. But Bush’s words shift this from a policy debate of voucher advocates and opponents to a discussion of families and community leaders of options and pathways to help low-income students in struggling schools. It moves this from inside baseball to a game the whole community can play in.
We’ll have to wait and see if “Pell Grants for Kids” sticks as a brand and a call to arms for vouchers in 2008. But it definitely has potential.