Commentary

Are vouchers the fix for public schools?

In response to the news that hungry citizens outside her palace were pleading for bread, French Queen Marie Antoinette is infamous for her callous response: “Let them eat cake.” Sadly, this analogy is applicable to our current leadership in Washington, D.C., when it comes to inner-city parents pleading on behalf of their children for access to a decent education. As a Lutheran Christian, I cannot understand why the political class is so insensitive to this nation’s most underprivileged.

Immediately upon taking office, the Obama administration dropped funding for the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, dashing the hopes of 216 newly-accepted students and sparking outrage from the families of the 1,700 students already enrolled in the education voucher program. (The current students will be funded until they graduate from high school.)

Tim Utter

Juan Williams asserts that access to a quality education is “the key civil rights issue of this generation.”

Despite the mind-boggling amount of dollars budgeted for the stimulus package (including tennis courts for the town of Bozeman, Montana), the anguish of the predominately low-income, mostly minority children is apparently not worth acknowledging with government funding. These disadvantaged children will just have to be content to return to D.C.’s dead-end schools and wait. Wait? Until what? More money? Their school district is already spending more than $18,000 per child, the most expensive in the United States.

A president’s decision

Meanwhile, across town, President Barack Obama’s two daughters are happily enrolled at Sidwell Friends, a private school. “A number of great schools were considered,” said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama. “In the end, the Obamas selected the school that was the best fit for what their daughters [Sasha and Malia] need right now.”

Too bad inner-city parents don’t have the same access opportunity for providing “the best fit” for their children as well — and a chance to achieve the American Dream. By the way, if not for the grandfathering clause in the dropped voucher program, two of Sasha and Malia’s classmates would be saying goodbye to their beloved friends and teachers.

Perhaps we should note the telling remarks of columnist Juan Williams. While expressing his exasperation with “the reckless dismantling of the D.C. voucher program,” Williams asserts that access to a quality education is “the key civil rights issue of this generation.” (April 20, 2009)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have made an ideal advisor to King Louis XVI, husband of Marie Antoinette. In response to the withdrawal of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Duncan replied, “I will continue to advocate for reforms to our public school system so that these children … have the opportunity to attend schools as good as they deserve.” So, how many years will that “reform” take for “these children” to “attend schools as good as they deserve”?

In the meantime, do we let them eat cake?

Tim Utter is an admissions counselor at Concordia University in St. Paul.

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