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Opinion: Columnists

What the Democrats won't say about education

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Opinion,Diana Furchtgott Roth,Columnists

Although Democrats talk a lot about economic inequality, one of its most powerful remedies, school choice, will be missing from speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

With an average American high school graduation rate of 75 percent -- 50 percent in some urban school districts -- many children are already behind by the time they leave high school without a diploma.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, announced his support for school choice in May. In contrast, President Obama tried to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives scholarships for at least a few low-income children to go to schools of their choice. It was only saved through the efforts of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The problem is twofold. Children generally must attend their "neighborhood" public school. And teachers unions resist vouchers that would let students opt out and attend another school -- public or private, secular or parochial -- with at least some of the money following them.

Unions oppose school choice because it threatens to reduce enrollment in public schools, especially the worst ones, and thin the ranks of government-employed teachers who pay union dues. The two big teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, spent at least $127 million in 2011 on political activities and lobbying, and $110 million on contributions, gifts and grants to Democratic candidates, according to Labor Department filings.

These contributions explain why public education appears to be one of the few benefits where parents have no choice.

In contrast, consider the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Forty-seven million low-income individuals are given government help in the form of debit cards to purchase food in grocery stores of their choice.

There would be protests if they were told that they could take debit cards only to one store in their neighborhood. People might say, "There isn't a good grocery store in my neighborhood." Or, "The grocery store around the corner doesn't have fresh fruit and vegetables at good prices."

Groups representing low-income people would rightly complain that the government policy of forcing people to use food stamps only at neighborhood stores was leading to poor nutrition among lower-income Americans.

But when low-income children are forced to attend low-quality neighborhood schools, many of these same groups don't have anything to say.

It's not only food stamps where poor people have a choice. Take Medicaid, or the Children's Health Insurance Program, for youngsters from low-income families. No one says that people who qualify for Medicaid or CHIP must see only doctors in their neighborhoods. Sure, the choice of doctors is limited, but that is because of low reimbursement rates, not government-imposed requirements.

Or take housing. After the failure of large public housing projects, Congress authorized housing vouchers, which low-income people can use anywhere the landlord agrees to participate in the program. Some localities, such as Aspen, Colo., require landlords to participate.

It's not difficult to conceive of an educational system in which, as with food stamps or housing vouchers, dollars follow the child. They exist now for some students in Indiana, Louisiana and Florida, and could be extended to all students.

Data clearly show the success of private schools. In 2011, private schools had a 98 percent graduation rate, according to Education Department data. In contrast, the 2011 graduation rate for public school children who started high school in 2007 was 75 percent.

Forty percent of public school students nationally went on to college, compared with 57 percent of students who attended private schools.

Such academic success means faster upward mobility, because fewer people are stuck at the bottom of the career ladder.

If Democrats were truly concerned about inequality, they would support school choice in Charlotte this week.

Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth (dfr@manhattan-institute.org), former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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