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School choice: A war on poverty worth fighting

Children on school parking lotAs conservatives, we like to use facts and numbers to defend our policies, and too often neglect to make an emotional connection with voters. That’s why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s recent speech on school choice was so refreshing.

School choice is a policy that makes all the sense in the world financially and as a matter of conservative and libertarian philosophy, but Cantor offered it as a method of breaking down the cycle of poverty and helping struggling families escape from dismal situations. These are the stories we need to tell — and these are the kind of policies we need to pursue.

School choice is the common-sense response to one of our country’s most inexplicable injustices — allowing educational bureaucracies to trap children in underperforming schools, based solely on their ZIP code. It’s not only unfair to the children stuck in these underperforming schools, it deprives parents of the right to make decisions about their own family’s future.

Contrast K-12 education with higher education. When high school seniors are applying to college, they’re allowed to look at schools in-state, out of state, online, public and private schools, as well as community colleges and specialized schools. And while the system is far from perfect, if a family can’t afford tuition, there are a host of financial aid options available, many — including Pell Grants and Stafford loans — provided by the government and funded by tax dollars. The system is built around the student, and puts him or her in a position to choose the college that he or she thinks best meets their needs, abilities and learning style.

On the K-12 level, nearly as many options exist — large and small public schools, private and parochial schools, charters, magnets, virtual classrooms and homeschooling — but in far too many districts across the country, bureaucrats draw arbitrary lines to decide whose children attend which school. Parents are generally left with a choice of settling for the assigned public school — no matter how well it fits the needs of their children — or paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for a private school, even though they already contribute heavily to the public school system through their federal, state and local taxes.

School choice programs put parents back in the driver’s seat by making the full range of K-12 options available, regardless of where they live or whether they’re able to pay. A variety of such programs exist, but the most efficient and empowering is opportunity scholarships, which return parents’ tax contributions to them in the form of a scholarship that can be used at any accredited school. Combined with robust charter school laws and further investment in virtual education, opportunity scholarship programs — which are already in place in Indiana and Louisiana, and have been piloted on a smaller level in several other states — make the system work for parents, and not the other way around.

These programs make sense through the charts-and-graphs lens that conservatives like to reflexively apply to policy debates. Studies have found, for example, that districts save on per-pupil costs when families use scholarships to transfer out, and teacher-student ratios at traditional public schools improve. But more importantly, school choice improves lives in a way that few other policies can. For low income families stuck in a failing school district, an opportunity scholarship can be the difference between a child succeeding in school and going on to college, or that child losing interest, dropping out and continuing the cycle of poverty.

These are the stories Cantor wants to tell. If conservatives can commit themselves to policies that make sense fiscally, philosophically and emotionally, we may see the political tides begin to turn.

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