When I first became chancellor of D.C. Public Schools in 2007, I was skeptical about the city's parental choice scholarship, or "voucher" program. I'm a lifelong, card-carrying Democrat. In my mind, private school funding for low-income kids took money from traditional school systems.
But as I got to know D.C. families, a number of mothers approached me and asked what they should do. They had checked out their neighborhood schools, and what they discovered was startling. In some cases, a mere 10 percent of kids were working at or above their grade level. That wasn't encouraging. So, they tried to win spots in better schools across town or in high-performing public charter schools. But, more often than not, there were no spaces, and it was then these mothers would come to me and say, "Now what?"
After facing this question a few too many times, I concluded that if I couldn't offer them a spot at a public school where I would send my own kids, I also couldn't possibly tell them to pass up a voucher for a good private school. Simply put, I was no longer willing to look these parents in the eye and say, "You know what? Give me five more years to make your school better." I wasn't willing to ask families to accept anything less than I'd want for my kids.
I know some advocates of private school scholarships hope for a system where eventually all public financing for schools would follow children to the school their parents choose. I take an approach that puts more faith in the public school system. I believe we can improve our public schools. But as many traditional districts around the country are seeing, giving parents choice in the form of charter schools and private scholarships forces districts to improve to keep their students. I'm not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children -- not simply more opportunities.
I also believe schools that receive public funding to educate poor kids ought to be held accountable for student progress. That means, like public schools, they should have to measure academic growth in objective ways, such as on standardized tests.
I don't believe in silver bullets. I don't think there is any one answer to fixing this country's educational shortcomings, and I don't believe private scholarships alone are the answer. Rather, I think in the long run, our school system should include a mix of high-quality traditional public schools, successful public charter schools and private schools attended by some low-income children who receive publicly funded scholarships. I believe that kind of mix will create the right opportunities and choices to serve our kids well and push our educational system toward becoming what we want and need it to be.
Why low-income children? I know that most American families would struggle to cover the costs of private K-12 education, particularly when they are trying to save for college. But I go back to the mothers in my school system in D.C. The parents who have no means to move to a better school district should be first in line for a scholarship.
I know there are many who hold the view, like I did, that there is just something wrong with supporting private school scholarships. But I ask you to think about what's worse: supporting public funding for private schools, or allowing poor children to stay in chronically failing schools? The research is clear -- a couple of years in a row in an ineffective classroom can change a child's entire life trajectory. We can't and shouldn't take that gamble.