Giving parents more school choice

As elected officials, taxpayers and parents confront daunting challenges facing public education, consider these sobering statistics from the Davis Guggenheim documentary "Waiting for Superman":

-- Among 30 developed countries, the United States is ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. When the comparison is restricted to the top 5 percent of students, the United States is ranked last.

-- Eight years after the passage of No Child Left Behind, the United States has four years left to reach the legislation's goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading. Most states are hovering around 20 to 30 percent proficiency.

-- Barely half of African-American and Latino students graduate from high school. African-American students graduate at 51 percent and Latinos at 55 percent, while their white counterparts graduate at (a still lower than optimal) 76 percent.

What can be done? Almost every politician talks about "reform," but very little seems to be accomplished. President Barack Obama's touted Race to the Top initiative merely extends federal control over public education while providing unprecedented billions of dollars to promote successful, unsuccessful and unproven education strategies.

However, in a bold and under-reported move, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner kept a promise by promoting legislation to restart the District of Columbia's parental choice program to help economically challenged and underprivileged children.

"Quality education should not be a luxury only to those who can afford it," stated Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Boehner prompted the House, on a 225-195 vote, to restore $20 million for a successful D.C. program started in 2004 under Republicans, but abruptly terminated in 2009 by congressional Democrats. At that time, it gave approximately 1,700 students (mostly black and Hispanic) up to $7,500 annually to attend a private school. Most D.C. residents supported this program, including the Democrat-controlled City Council and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. But the local and national teacher unions fought it tooth and nail, finally succeeding in getting their allies in the Democrat-controlled Congress to kill this "threat" to their all-too-often failing public schools.

The Obama White House says "it opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools," and claims there's no evidence of academic improvement relating to those students. However, The Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial that the Department of Education is in possession of a study of the D.C. parental choice program that shows gains in reading scores and no declines in math relative to the public schools.

So why can't there be more choice for parents and kids when it comes to schools?

"Waiting for Superman" follows five students and their quest to get into successful charter schools. It features powerful scenes of children sitting alongside their parents, clutching tightly to a piece of paper with a number scribbled on it, seeing if they are going to be able to obtain a slot in one of the better urban public schools. Some shed tears of relief when their number was called. Many wept in sadness when they were passed over. Indeed, the film notes less than 10 percent of the students who are a part of these lotteries actually get chosen to attend the better schools.

That's why more charter and private school choices should be nurtured in D.C. and all around the nation. The growing parental choice movement is one that crosses political, socioeconomic and racial lines. It is a reminder that "public education" is not simply the buildings and bureaucracy that support "the education system." We must never forget that public education is about children and their education, however that happens.

Let's urge our state legislators and members of Congress to stand for "back to the basics" education reform. "Superman" can still arrive to save the day for many of our students, as Boehner and his fellow Republicans are trying to do for some deserving D.C. kids. After all, our country's position as a global leader depends mightily on how well-educated and prepared our children become as they reach adulthood.

J.C. Watts ( is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.