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Lynn: Choice Rests With Schools, Not Parents

Kevin P. Chavous’ recent Guest Observer (“Congress Is Getting It Wrong on Parental School Choice,” April 5) is little more than a propaganda piece for the forces that seek to privatize elementary and secondary education in America.

Here are some facts about school “choice” that Chavous conveniently overlooked: First off, the choice rests with the school, not the parents. Many D.C. private schools have been more than happy to raid the public treasury, but they certainly don’t want any significant government oversight, including telling them which students to accept.

Even if the schools were required to admit more children, would there really be much choice? D.C. vouchers are pegged at $8,000 to $12,000, so they don’t even come close to paying the annual tuition at exclusive private schools in the region — most of which don’t want voucher students anyway.

The schools left in the shallow pool provided by the almighty free market tend be religious schools. Not much of a “choice” there. Unless you’re an adherent of the denomination sponsoring the school, you probably don’t want your children enrolled there.

Religious leaders brag about how their schools require students to attend worship services and how they consider their schools instruments of evangelism.

That’s nice for the sponsoring faiths. But it’s fair to ask why taxpayers are subsidizing such sectarian goals. More to the point, why is the federal government bailing out any religious school system?

Should taxpayers be forced to continue to subsidize Muhammad University of Islam, an unaccredited institution whose director freely admits that the school is affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a racially separatist sect with a record of anti-Semitism and homophobia?

Of course, not all of the schools taking part in the voucher program are religious. Parents could always send their children to the Academy for Ideal Education, which is based in part on an educational model known as “Suggestopedia.” The school was devised by an obscure Bulgarian psychotherapist named Georgi Lozanov whose underlying theory is that students can learn by tapping into the power of suggestion.

Again, it’s a thin “choice” here.

What’s more scandalous than the questionable schools is that the program simply isn’t helping the students its backers said it would help. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education found “no conclusive evidence” that students receiving vouchers showed improved math and reading test scores over their public-school peers.

That’s not surprising. The results mirror those from other jurisdictions that have experimented with vouchers. Supporters of vouchers promise a lot but deliver very little. Wisconsin has had a voucher plan aimed at Milwaukee since the early 1990s. Last year, the state’s Department of Public Instruction found that 90 percent of the students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were not proficient in reading and math.

The Government Accountability Office reported recently that many schools in the voucher program lack a valid D.C. occupancy certificate and have failed to submit required financial data and annual operational reports with basic information on curriculum, teachers’ qualifications and school facilities. Even the current administrator of the D.C. program admitted that quality control is “a dead zone, a blind spot” of the plan.

Despite all of these problems, Chavous claims that D.C.’s voucher plan is the most successful in the country. His comment speaks volumes about the worth of voucher plans, although not in the manner he intended.

D.C.’s voucher plan, like others around the country, has become a vehicle to subsidize religious education at the expense of the public schools. It forces people to subsidize religion and threatens public education. Rather than expand the program, it’s time to shut it down.

— The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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