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Empowering education



Parental choice. Vouchers. Scholarships. These and other terms are the vernacular in the movement to provide parents direct purchasing power over the education of their children.

Education is the purview of states, and that’s where the lion’s share of funds – and responsibility – for education rests. Federal authority is limited by the constitution; powers not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states.

But perhaps it’s time to revisit whether the federal government should play a larger role in education, especially when state courts rule against programs that are democratically enacted.

There are three things Congress and the president can come together to do that are not only right, but also good for education.

But first we must start with a simple proposition. Can we all agree that every child born in the U.S. is rightfully entitled to an education that guarantees fundamental literacy, numeracy and a basic understanding of the rights and duties of a U.S. citizen?

And if we agree on that, where is the right place to make that guarantee?

The fact that states generally have failed to ensure what their constitutions intended doesn’t mean the federal government should usurp their power, but it does mean we must find a way to invalidate the provisions that have failed to deliver on our simple proposition:

Every child born in the U.S. is rightfully entitled to an education that guarantees fundamental literacy, numeracy and a basic understanding of the rights and duties of a U.S. citizen.

It may be necessary to construct laws that push the states to think hard about changing their systems – or constitutions – so every child’s education meets at least this minimum standard.

If the education system were like the home of an abused child, we would step in and remove the victim. In schools, however, we either blame the victim or the circumstances, or we excuse the adults who fail to deal with the problem. This is unacceptable.

How can Congress fix this while avoiding a full-scale war with teachers’ unions? Or a war with those who (wrongly) believe the separation of church and state means funding a student in a religious school chosen by the parents amounts to a prohibited establishment of a state religion?

It’s actually quite easy and would cost very little. Three steps:

• Order the U.S. Department of Justice to study the Blaine Amendment.

Blaine Amendments, added to many state constitutions as a result of anti-Catholic fervor in the late 1800s, prohibit the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools.

The wording of many such amendments exceeds the language of the U.S. Constitution. Their lingering impact has been credited with stopping school choice from becoming a reality in many states.

Incoming Attorney General Eric Holder should instruct his Office for Civil Rights to determine if, as a result of such amendments, violations of civil rights laws are occurring in our public schools today.

• Make federal education funds portable.

The federal government cannot prescribe innovations, but it can support and enable them.

While the charter school grant program funds the startup of such innovative public schools, the delivery of wider (e.g. private) choice options could be supported by existing funds, simply by creating a rule that allows entitlement dollars to be distributed through state education agencies in states where school choice programs exist.

• Showcase and applaud the District of Columbia’s innovations.

No other U.S. city is home to the robust innovational environment that characterizes D.C. these days. More than 30 percent of students are in high-quality charters, which by every measure are performing better than most comparable public schools in the area.

Two thousand poor students are choosing private and Catholic schools, subsidized by a federal grant that allows these children access to quality schooling beyond their neighborhoods.

And the mayor has adopted a school reform initiative through his chancellor, Michelle Rhee, that promises to boost the quality of D.C. teachers for children who have no other option, by providing them pay in return for better and higher performance.

These programs exist as necessary options in a city long plagued by failure in its public schools.

Broad local support for these reforms, combined with strong results, merits the attention of Congress. By continuing these and other programs, and by saluting those who reform the status quo, Congress and the new president can add momentum and national recognition to these lifesaving efforts.

Jeanne Allen is president of The Center for Education Reform. This is an excerpt from Mandate for Change; the full manuscript and conclusions can be read at http://mandate.edreform.com.

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