A voice for choice

Carol Arscott

January 27, 1993|By Carol Arscott

MY 8-year-old daughter looked over my shoulder as I read the newspaper on Sunday morning, her eyes concentrating on a photograph of the new first family. What did she think it would be like to be Chelsea Clinton, I asked her. She considered her answer for a few moments before she replied.

"Not so good. It would be hard," Leigh said. "She has to go to private school."

Leigh, of course, had no idea why I found her response so amusing. I tried to explain why I had chuckled, but that was hard, too.

How could an 8-year-old understand that Chelsea's parents had done absolutely nothing wrong, but had risked real political damage by making a personal decision in direct conflict with their public pronouncements? How was I to explain that public schools like hers don't exist in big cities? And when she tells me it's not fair, how do I explain how we'll make it right?

Leigh's life experience doesn't provide her with the tools to judge the Clintons' actions. She and her brother walk two short blocks to the corner in a safe and secure residential neighborhood and take a five-minute ride to one of the finest public elementary schools in the state.

She has nothing to fear but forgetting her lunch. There are no drive-by shootings, no drugs sold at the bus stop. The school is so flush with parent volunteers that they had to build an annex to the parking lot. The children perform beautifully on standardized tests and go right on achieving as they enter middle and high school, in that same safe and secure residential area.

What is unspoken, but obvious, is this: These children were born to parents who had the economic freedom to buy homes in Howard County, the economic freedom to choose their child's school by selecting a specific home in a particular location. It's no wonder school redistricting battles are so bloody.

Chelsea's parents, of course, are constrained from making housing decisions during the next four years, but their economic freedom gave them another option: escaping the public school system that nearly all of official Washington evades by choosing a private institution. This, we were told, was a decision made in the best interest of their daughter, and I have no doubt that is true. But that begs a follow-up question. How many Washingtonians don't think Sidwell Friends would be best for their children, too?

The unfortunate truth is that the parents who lack the economic freedom to choose to send their children to Sidwell Friends are virtual prisoners of a public school system with a captive audience -- and absolutely no incentive to improve. School choice is a great leveler, evening the educational playing field, dTC giving a measure of economic freedom to poor and middle-income families while providing a powerful incentive to the public schools to perform or risk losing their clientele.

So thanks to the Clintons, the notion of school choice is creeping into the national consciousness. And thanks to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, school choice is getting a full and fair hearing in Maryland.

In his State of the State address Jan. 14, the governor announced he would incorporate a pilot school choice program for 200 families in his 1993 budget. Vouchers for $2,900 -- about half the average yearly cost of a public education in Maryland -- would be awarded (probably via a random drawing of qualified applicants) and redeemed for cash value at the private or parochial school of their choice.

The academic progress of the students in the pilot would be closely scrutinized and analyzed. Will they perform better, work harder and enjoy school more? Or is the real reason private schools produce students who excel rooted in their selectivity, as choice critics charge? Will a lively choice program invigorate the public schools with competitive spirit, or demoralize them even more? There is only one way to learn.

Choice has detractors in the legislature (Senate President Mike Miller is a vocal opponent), but it also has strong and active champions of all political persuasions. During the 1992 legislative session, Howard County Republican Bob Flanagan teamed with Baltimore City Democrat Pete Rawlings to co-sponsor the bill that the governor has incorporated into this year's budget. The inclusion of the pilot in the budget sends the bill not to the Ways and Means Committee, where the Flanagan/Rawlings bill failed by just one vote last year, but to Appropriations, chaired by Mr. Rawlings! A lively time is assured, but that will only be the byproduct of the most important public policy debate of the session.

Carol Arscott, press secretary of the House Republican Caucus in Annapolis, writes from Ellicott City.

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