The tall, attractive African-American mother from Baton Rouge, Louisiana was on a mission. Through a friend, she had heard about the New Orleans Scholarship program in which 2,000 low-income New Orleans children from failing schools are given scholarships to attend participating private schools. While New Orleans has the most robust charter school program in the nation, many kids are still trapped in schools that don't serve their needs. As a result, the New Orleans voucher program has given a lifeline to thousands of low-income children who would otherwise receive an inadequate education.
Over the past several weeks, that young mother has attended rallies and meetings sponsored by Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) because she wants a chance to gain access to the same type of scholarships being offered in New Orleans, so that her own 6-year-old son can attend a quality private school.
This week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will sign into law the bill he championed which does, in fact, expand the existing New Orleans scholarship program statewide. Since this measure gives low-income parents who have kids in low performing schools across the state access to these scholarships, ultimately hundreds of thousands of kids may benefit. Many working class parents, like the young Baton Rouge mother, are ecstatic to the point of tears about this bill's passage.
Others, however, are outraged, claiming that a statewide voucher program will lead to the demise of public education in Louisiana and the system will suffer irreparably as a result.
No education reform measure evokes as much rabid and intense opposition as does private school choice.
It's surprising that school vouchers are as volatile a public policy issue in this country as abortion rights, gay marriage and the death penalty. Teachers unions and school administrators view vouchers as the biggest threat to public education -- something to be viciously fought at all costs. But even some respected education reformers are hesitant to embrace school vouchers, seeing this issue as impractical and not worthy of the political capital it inevitably grabs.
And yet, as we draw lines in the sand about how far we go in embracing these programs, 7,000 children a day, over a million a year, are dropping out of school; while countless more are attending schools in which virtually no one is learning.
In response, we rehash three to five year old school district reform plans dujour, continue to debate about systemic reform and the best plan needed to implement them.
Through it all, still far too many of our kids aren't learning and the education achievement gap in America continues to grow. All which begs the question: Is public school system preservation really more important than properly educating as many children possible?
What about formulating a new standard in deciding education policy? One based upon whether children will learn as a result of the proposal. And in the meantime, as we decide on larger school district reform measures, why not offer as many quality options as possible to those kids who can't wait for systemic reform to take hold? Options like charter schools, home schooling, digital learning, magnet schools, specialty schools and yes, even school vouchers.
That young Baton Rouge mother isn't supporting school vouchers in Louisiana because of some esoteric education policy thrust. Nor has she been volunteering her time speaking to legislators on this issue because of a particular political bent. Her actions are totally motivated by doing what is best for her son and his future success. The least we can do is meet her halfway.