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We celebrate this month the 50 th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and its sacred constitutional promise of equal educational opportunities. But as far as we’ve come during the past half-century, right now we are moving further away from making the promise a reality. America, racially, looks little like it did in 1954. No longer is segregation mandated in any official government policy. Americans of all races and ethnicities work together, go to school together and marry one another. Minorities are growing in wealth and political power. But in the most important arena of all-education, the subject of Brown-progress has arrested and even reversed. Ten years ago, the average black high school senior graduated at an academic level three years behind the average white senior. After 10 years of increased spending, smaller class sizes and all manner of social experimentation, that gap is worse: Black seniors now are four academic years behind their white counterparts. That gap reflects a large and widening academic chasm between white and black students at every level of education, from kindergarten to SAT scores to post-graduation studies. Many black and Hispanic children, particularly the economically disadvantaged, lack the basic skills necessary upon graduation for productive livelihoods. And barely half of black and Hispanic students graduate at all. This bodes worst for black youths; about 27% of young black men who dropped out are in jail today. Many, even those who call themselves education “reformers,” demand more money and other self-interested changes. But in No Excuses (Simon & Schuster 2003), Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom found that increased funding (most of which gets stuck in bloated bureaucracies), smaller class sizes and the like do little to boost academic performance. For example, Newark, N.J., spends $15,000 per public school student-and its system is a shambles. The only proven reform is school choice-private school vouchers and deregulated public charter schools-which not only provide educational life preservers to children who need them desperately, but also stimulate long-overdue public school reform. The reason that school choice works is because it effects a radical transfer of power over basic education decisions from bureaucrats to parents. Wealthy and middle-class parents who are dissatisfied with public schools can move to communities with better schools (their choices are subsidized by income tax deductions for mortgage interest and local taxes) or enroll their children in private schools. Low-income families cannot. Their children are hostages in schools that often are dangerous, ineffective and controlled by special interests. School choice gives such families the power to enroll their children in better schools-and to take some of their education funds with them. That forces public schools to do what they need to do to convince families to keep their children (and funding) in their schools. Choice programs have helped narrow the academic gap and provide a competitive incentive for public schools to improve. In Florida, where children in failing public schools are given a chance to attend better-performing public schools or private schools at public expense, public schools that previously were failing have adopted long-resisted reforms. This has boosted the performance and test scores of children at the bottom of the academic ladder statewide in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court removed the federal constitutional cloud from school choice in its landmark decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). But now defenders of the status quo are challenging school-choice programs in Florida and Colorado under state constitutional provisions. Teachers’ unions and their allies tenaciously resist school choice everywhere, regardless of the human cost to America’s poor. Still, there is hope for David to beat this Goliath. Congress passed school choice this year for the District of Columbia, after a long and vociferous grassroots battle. As in every civil rights battle, lawyers can make a difference. Indeed, most state constitutions guarantee equal or high-quality education. Yet a number of lawsuits have wielded such provisions not to secure relief for children through school choice, but to obtain more money for school districts. This is the wrong legal strategy. Imagine purchasing a car that turned out to be a lemon. You would go to court to secure a just remedy. But would the court order the public to give the car company billions of dollars in the hope that one day in the distant future it would produce a better car? Of course not. It would refund your money so you could buy a better car. That is the type of remedy we must demand for our children. Though we cannot retreat from efforts to improve public schools-a task to which school choice is complementary, not antagonistic-it is clear that public schools alone cannot do the job. The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that children in failing schools be offered better-performing schools within the district, but what happens when such seats are unavailable? For example, in Los Angeles, 225,000 children are trapped in failing public schools, while zero seats are available for them in better ones. We must enlist every possible option to deliver the equal educational opportunities that are every American’s birthright. For the promise of Brown to be fulfilled, we need to expand the definition of public education to concern ourselves not with where children are educated, but whether they are educated. School choice is the catalyst that is essential to drive reform and empower the families whose children now are left behind. Clint Bolick is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice (www.allianceforschoolchoice.org). He is author of, most recently, Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle Over School Choice (Cato Institute 2003).

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