Long time Washington residents no doubt are familiar with the constant stream of task forces, initiatives and other important-sounding enterprises that pledge to tackle a certain issue and give it the attention it deserves. The problem, longtime Washington residents also know, is that the most effective outcomes often arise from actual, concrete policies instead of the formation of more committees to talk about the problems.
So it was a curious move by President Obama last week when, during remarks at the National Urban League conference, he announced the creation of a new initiative to improve educational outcomes for blacks.
The thing is, the president’s a bit behind on this one. That initiative already exists — it’s called school choice.
While the president’s executive order pledges to “work across Federal agencies and with partners and communities” to help improve educational outcomes for blacks, there is remarkable evidence across the country — no more so than here in the nation’s capital — that makes clear just how effective school-choice programs have been in improving the lives of black students.
Here in the District, where more than 90 percent of participants in the city’s D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program are black, youngsters are graduating at a rate of 91 percent — more than 30 points higher than the students in the city’s public schools, who also are overwhelmingly black. Youngsters who participate in the voucher program also show improved reading scores, according to a 2010 study from the Department of Education's Institute of Educational Sciences. Considering the president’s public statements about a desire to improve educational outcomes for our people, you’d think he would be a supporter of the voucher program, right?
The sad truth is that despite all the worthwhile education initiatives the president does support — including improving teacher and administrator quality, improving individual school quality, and making college readiness a more integral part of the course work for black students — he actively opposes perhaps the most important component of education reform, which can help youngsters of all races, including black students, and that’s expanded educational options for low-income families.
While he’s only on record in opposition to the District’s voucher program, similarly effective programs are in operation in some of the very places where he’s focusing his new initiative. Louisiana, where the president announced the plan, is one of the shining examples of how lives can change as a result of school choice. The state Department of Education recently awarded 5,600 scholarships for the state’s newly expanded voucher program, and nearly 5,000 of those awards — almost 88 percent — went to black families. This for a program that in its four years in New Orleans saw four consecutive parental satisfaction surveys reveal that no fewer than 93 percent of parents — again, the majority of whom were black — expressed satisfaction with their child’s school.
Mr. Obama’s idea of the best way to improve educational outcomes is through a host of federal initiatives, when in reality, we should be putting the power directly in the hands of the parents. As voucher programs across the country predominantly benefit families in large urban areas, black families often are the biggest winners.
The idea of vouchers, after all, began in Milwaukee, a city with a plurality black population. There, graduation rates are higher for voucher students than for those in the public schools, and students in the Milwaukee program are more likely to go to college and stay in college — one of the goals outlined by the president’s new initiative.
A statewide scholarship tax credit program in Florida, which is improving academic outcomes, graduating students at a higher rate, and improving the performance of public schools, enrolls more than 50 percent more black students than the public schools in those same communities.
It’s laudatory that the president recognizes and seems interested in combating the heartbreakingly high black dropout rate in this country, a rate that nearly doubles that of white students. Any additional attention on that reality is a welcome and appreciated move toward ultimately making education in this country a more equitably distributed system.
What is there to say of that aim if the tools he’s willing to use leave out such an important and proven effective component?
If the president is sincere about his desire to help black children achieve better educational outcomes — and I believe he is — it’s imperative that he make school choice and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program a part of this initiative.
After all, aren’t our young black boys and girls worth trying everything to save?
Kevin P. Chavous is a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children and the board chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He was a member of the D.C. Council for 12 years.
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