What’s good for children

By Frank Wessling

We all want schools that are good for children, in which they learn basic skills for living such as reading, math, history, language and science fundamentals in an atmosphere of mutual respect and kindness. These should be minimum expectations, although many of us also want help in building religious sensibility and knowledge in our children. Unfortunately, what’s good for children sometimes gets submerged in politics.

An example of the latter is playing out in Washington, D.C. Since 2004, a voucher program called Opportunity Scholarships has provided up to $7,500 to cover annual tuition, fees and transportation needs for poor children who want something other than the public school system. About 1,700 children are taking advantage of these vouchers, 90 percent of them African-American and 9 percent Hispanic, with about half attending Catholic schools. Now it appears that the program will not survive a quiet attempt in Congress to kill its funding.

The excuse is that the money is needed in the public schools. A funny thing happened, though, when the leading public school administrator weighed in with her thought on the matter. Michelle Rhee, D.C. schools chancellor in Washington, is intimately familiar with the problems in her system and, second, focused on what’s good for the children. Her bottom line: “(P)arents who are zoned to schools that are failing kids should have options to do better by their kids.”

Hired two years ago to clean up a notoriously poor school system, Rhee says, “Part of my job is to make sure that all kids get a great education, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s in charter, parochial or public schools.”

She doesn’t imagine that vouchers will solve all problems in education but insists that “options” to failure are necessary for the public good.

It’s a point made here frequently over the years. The education of children in this country has been crippled by a refusal to recognize the value of alternatives, especially Catholic schools, to the established public school system. People with enough money have long voted with their feet for alternatives; it has only been the poor who had to live with “schools that are failing kids,” as Rhee bluntly puts it.

Voucher programs like the one in Washington are a way to even the playing field for parents and children. By helping to keep alternatives available they make the public schools feel the warmth of competition and an upward striving for standards.

Who is this Michelle Rhee who puts the needs of children first? She’s a tough, bright daughter of Korean immigrants who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and made a name for herself as a no-nonsense administrator. In Washington she is responsible to the mayor, not a school board. The system there was in such desperate shape that she was given extraordinary freedom in managing it. She quickly cut out hundreds of underperforming people, including 24 principals and 22 assistant principals, and began working on a performance-based contract with teachers.

This is a woman dedicated to the real goal: the good of children — all children.

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