A vote for school choice

May 03, 1999|By Andrew Young

CERTAIN flash points in America's civil rights struggle represent moments of moral awakening: Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat; John Lewis' beating at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail. By raising long submerged issues into stark and vivid relief, these events forced a reckoning -- and reckoned a change. They forced us to re-evaluate our beliefs, and, finally, take action.

Recently, we witnessed another such moment: 1.25 million cries for help voiced by poor, largely minority families, seeking something most Americans take for granted -- a decent education for their children. To anyone who cared to listen, this was the loud and clear message sent by those who applied to the Children's Scholarship Fund to win one of the 40,000 partial, kindergarten through eighth-grade scholarships we offered to help low-income families send their children to the public, private or parochial school of their choice.

Until now, the denial crowd could argue: Inner-city families are fairly satisfied with their schools, they assured us, and besides, poor parents are really too out of it to take an active role in their children's education anyway. The families who sent in 1.25 million applicants from 20,000 communities in all 50 states clearly beg to disagree.

While scholarships were offered nationally, one-quarter to more than one-third of the eligible population in many urban school districts applied: 26 percent in Chicago; 29 percent in New York; 33 percent in Washington, D.C.; 44 percent in Baltimore. The most scholarships, 3,750, were handed out to Los Angeles families. New York and Chicago received 2,500 each; Baltimore netted 500.

These families were not asking for handouts, quite the opposite. Despite an average income of less than $22,000, applicants were asking to contribute on average $1,000 annually for four years to supplement the partial scholarship. This represents $5 billion from families who are financially struggling.

Yet, behind the 40,000 people who will be helped loom more than 1 million applicants -- and many more who suffer in similar circumstances. What can be done to help them, not five or 10 years from now, but today? Let parents, especially among the poor, seek a decent education wherever it may be found.

Will allowing parents to choose from different education options "destroy public education"? Did competition from Toyota "destroy" General Motors? Or to use an even closer analogy: Has competition from Federal Express "destroyed" the government postal service, or has the latter indeed become better, faster, more innovative in response?

If families were allowed to seek a quality education wherever it may be found, who would benefit? Simple: Those who aren't getting a quality education and those who can deliver it. Certainly, some will oppose competition -- just as AT&T once fought the breakup of its monopoly. Others will reflexively resist the redistribution of power to poor families. Still others will wave their worn-out ideologies to defend a system of educational apartheid while demonizing anyone who promotes a parent's right to choose.

But is this right such a radical proposition? It wasn't to the founders of the United Nations. As stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

It is true, that those 1.25 million parents who applied to the Children's Scholarship Fund were probably less concerned with universal rights than immediate needs: gaining access to a good school for their child. But when Mrs. Parks refused to take her seat at the back of the bus, she was not thinking of sparking a civil rights crusade, even afterward; all she sought was an apology from the Montgomery Public Transit Authority. It was for others to see in her small, yet courageous gesture of defiance the universals of human dignity undaunted, of freedom and equality unjustly denied.

I predict that we will one day look back on the 1.25 million who applied for educational emancipation -- for the chance to seek the light and oxygen of a nourishing education -- not as victims, but as unwitting heroes with whom a great awakening was begun.

Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, serves on the board of the Children's Scholarship Fund. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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