A Plan to Lift Students out of Mediocrity Scholarships Would Let Poor Children Attend Private Schools

Article excerpt

In a 1983 report, "Nation at Risk,"i the National Commission on Excellence in Education spoke of the rising tide of mediocrity in America's schools. Today, d severe problems continue in large, urban public school districts. The poor, mainly minority children in these districts, are far likelier to exhibit low levels of achievement and to drop out of school than children in other areas.

The two of us approach these long-standing problems from different experiences in Democratic and Republican administrations, but we agree on policy responses. We believe strongly not just in national education goals but in common content standards for learning and in tests keyed to these standards.

We believe these tests should have consequences - for promotion, high school, graduation and even for admission to post-secondary institutions. We endorse the efforts of many states and localities to construct alternatives to inefficient, centralized school bureaucracies. Some areas have experimented with new contracting and management arrangements. Twenty-five states have passed charter school laws, which allow new or existing public schools to function as independent units, free of most regulations. With President Bill Clinton's strong leadership, federal support for charter school startups has risen substantially. All these efforts are moving in the right direction, but for the poorest children - those most at risk of failure - even stronger measures have to be tried. Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures have enacted laws to permit poor children in Milwaukee and Cleveland to receive means-tested scholarships for nonpublic schools. These efforts should be expanded into a national five-year demonstration program involving poor children in at least 10 hard-pressed urban school districts, with careful evaluation. We cannot afford to write off another generation of urban schoolchildren. To respond to this national emergency, every reasonable approach must be tried - without delay. Children in these school districts labor under social and economic handicaps. They are more likely to be poor, to come from single-parent households and to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. The poorer the students, the less likely they are to have taken the academic courses that prepare them for higher education and the more likely to develop problems of discipline and absenteeism. But these difficulties are no excuse for what amounts to organizational breakdown in many big-city school districts. These bureaucratic systems are legendary for inadequate planning, excessive numbers of non-teaching staff and mismanagement of facilities and supplies. Too often, they become job programs for adults at the expense of the children they are supposed to serve. These systems, designed nearly a century ago to function like factories and to prepare students for the industrial era, are hopelessly backward in an age of high technology and high performance. Because these obsolete systems are defended by a phalanx of entrenched interests, new approaches are needed to change incentives and redistribute power. Here's how our plan would work: To qualify for scholarships, students would have to be currently enrolled in public schools and eligible for the federal free-lunch program. …