Commentary

Darrell Allison: The case for school vouchers

February 28, 2014 

As I travel around the state, I am sometimes asked by well-meaning skeptics: “Instead of providing additional options to students, why not build it within our existing traditional public school system?”

I understand. For the defenders of traditional public schools, terms like public charter schools and private schools make them cringe. And, while there is a small minority of people that believe that public schools are inadequate and not worth investing in, I am not one of them.

My position on public education reform was best described in the award-winning 2011 documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” When studying the quality of public education compared to yesteryear, researchers found that high-performing schools had become low-performing and that the low academic scores may have little to do with the state of the actual school in question. In fact, the real issue may have more to do with the major decline and devastation in the communities that surrounds the school.

I am a product of public schools from a small N.C. textile town. Today, where the textile mill smoke stacks once stood, they have been replaced by bright, biotech research buildings.

Consider this: Twenty-three years ago when I attended public schools, 70 percent of the African-American households were two-parent households. Today, over 70 percent of the African-American households are one parent. And while I would in no way imply that our single mothers are somehow inadequate, I’m appalled by the fact that they had no choice in the matter.

It is tough statistics like these that have me asking those same well-meaning skeptics: Given the plight of our family, communities and the impact of a new global economy, why should we “expect” for our traditional public schools face these challenges, solely? Now more than ever, we must be open to change.

Change is constant. All of us must adapt. And our public educational system is no different.

When just over 28 percent of children from low-income communities meet grade standards in Orange County, it is clear that these parents deserve greater options for their child. When you add these countywide numbers to statewide figures, the number of children that are unable to perform is jaw-dropping. According to the State Department of Public Instruction, 70 percent of low-income North Carolina students failed to demonstrate proficiency of their subject – that’s seven out of 10 students!

Our K-12 public education system should look to our forward-thinking leaders at our North Carolina college and university level. In a state recognized for its strong educational prowess, our schools of higher-learning houses choice schools on their campuses. In recognition of the global economy, our universities have discussed the idea of starting campuses in China! If change is good enough for our world-class institutions, why such furor opposing parent options at the K-12 public education system – the same system that produces 30 percent proficiency for poor students?

The divisions among adults within our traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools must end. It’s about the kids.

New York Times best-selling author, Eckhart Tolle, once said, “Some changes look negative on the surface, but you will soon realize that that makes space for something new to emerge.” The something new to emerge will not happen solely within our traditional public schools, public charter schools nor in the Opportunity Scholarship program where poor children can attend private schools. It’s not until North Carolina allows for all of these innovative models to flourish that we will be creating a new and better K-12 public educational delivery system for all children.

Darrell Allison is the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, an organization that supports Opportunity Scholarships enabling low-income students to attend private schools in the 2014-15 school year.

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